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Closing The Gap: Asia’s Slow Progress on Equality

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Closing The Gap: Asia’s Slow Progress on Equality

Gender equality remains a distant pursuit for much of the Asia-Pacific region, despite the economic and social benefits.

Closing The Gap: Asia’s Slow Progress on Equality

Peru’s Michelle Bachelet was the only woman to attend the 2016 APEC Leaders’ Meeting. Then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye did not attend.

Credit: Flickr / Cancillería del Perú

In its latest report, “The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle,” the OECD found little progress had been made since its 2012 global study, despite efforts by a number of member economies.

“In the past five years, countries have made very little progress in reaching gender equality goals. Gender gaps persist in all areas of social and economic life and across countries, and the size of these gaps has often changed little,” the report said.

The Paris-based international economic organization noted that the median full-time female worker earns nearly 15 percent less than her male counterpart on average across the OECD – “a rate that has barely changed since 2010.” Women remain underrepresented in political and business leadership, while women are also less likely than men to engage in paid work or become entrepreneurs.

Girls are also less likely to study in the lucrative science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields compared to boys, despite having more years of schooling on average.

In the Asia-Pacific, the OECD’s country-specific reports on Japan, South Korea, and Australia revealed disparities remain despite recent efforts by policymakers to close the gap.

Japan: Womenomics Reboot Needed

Despite the efforts of Japan’s “Womenomics” the OECD noted a sharp division of labor remains, with women doing more than three quarters of unpaid work and caregiving and men working long office hours.

“Removing obstacles that limit women’s paid work and participation in the labor market is not just a matter of social justice in Japan – it is an economic necessity, too,” the report said, pointing to the need for the OECD’s fastest aging society to improve female workforce participation and job quality to boost growth.

Japan still has the third highest gender pay gap in the OECD at 25.7 percent, although down from 32.8 percent in 2005. Asia’s second-largest economy also ranks among the lowest in the OECD for women in management positions and for the share of women on company boards, while there are limited women in public life, despite the recent rise of leaders such as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

In education, Japan has the lowest female share of bachelor’s graduates in the OECD, at 45.4 percent, compared to the average of 58.2 percent. Only a quarter of such graduates are in STEM fields, an area which the government has started addressing, it said.

At the office, while new fathers now have access to up to one year of parental leave, fewer than 3 percent actually take it, with most having less than a month with their newborn. The OECD urged information campaigns to “break down stereotypes and increase men’s involvement in caregiving,” since men still fear the career consequences of taking leave.

The democratic nation also has the most male-dominated political class in the OECD, with only 9.5 percent of women in parliament, along with the second-lowest proportion of female public company directors at 3.4 percent. Although non-binding targets have been proposed to increase female leaders in government and business, “there is little enthusiasm for affirmative action in the political sphere that would see an increase in women in elected offices.”

With estimates by Goldman Sachs that closing the gap could increase Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) by nearly 13 percent, policymakers have been urged to “walk the talk” on gender equality by rebooting Womenomics.

South Korea: Held Back

Meanwhile, the situation in neighboring South Korea remains an “uphill battle” according to the OECD, which points to “major gender gaps in earnings, labor market participation, and representation in government.”

The report found South Korea’s gender pay gap is the highest in the OECD, with working women earning only 63 percent of their male counterparts’ pay. Only 56 percent of Korean women are employed, some 20 percentage points lower than the male rate, representing “a waste of economic resources and human capital.”

In public life, women hold only 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly, the fifth-lowest representation among OECD nations, despite having recently had its first female president.

In business, the situation is even worse, with women holding only 10.5 percent of management positions, the lowest in the OECD.

A “bright light” for Korea however is the increased affordability of pre-primary education, with some of the lowest out-of-pocket childcare costs in the OECD.

Similar to Japan, the OECD urged more efforts on “work-life balance,” including workplace practices that avoid excessively long hours, along with the promotion of women in both political and business spheres.

Australia: Room For Improvement

The marriage equality debate may have captured media attention in recent months, but Australia remains a “mid-range performer” in gender equality, the OECD said. While women make up nearly 59 percent of all undergraduates, they are less likely to engage in paid work and continue to earn less, earning 87 cents to every man’s dollar relative to the OECD’s average of 85.7 cents.

The OECD pointed to the concentration of women in service jobs, which pay less than technical roles in STEM fields that remain male-dominated. Only 8.7 percent of women work in industry, compared to around 31 percent of men.

A higher share of working women in Australia are in part-time employment, while high childcare costs have also made Australian children less likely to undertake formal childcare or preschool.

In parliament, women lawmakers accounted for nearly 29 percent, in line with the OECD average, while the female share of managers was 36 percent, ahead of the 31 percent average.

Nevertheless, the OECD urged policymakers to encourage greater gender equality in caregiving and promoting both parents’ labor force participation, including longer paid parental leave, cheaper childcare, tax incentives, and other measures.

Across the region, the World Economic Forum’s 2016 “Global Gender Gap” showed a mixed picture, with some of the smaller economies outperforming their wealthier rivals. The Philippines (seventh) and New Zealand (ninth) led the region, with Australia (46th) lagging behind Laos in 43rd place. East Asia showed generally poor rankings, with Japan placed 111th, South Korea 116th, and China 99th.

Should Asia improve its performance, the OECD pointed to considerable social and economic benefits. Reducing the gender gap in labor force participation by 25 percent by 2025, as agreed by G20 leaders, could add 1 percentage point of GDP growth through to 2025, and almost 2.5 percentage points if the gap is halved.

“In the face of sluggish growth, aging societies and increasing educational attainment of young women, the economic case for gender equality is clear,” said OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria.

For Asian policymakers, the message should be loud and clear.