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Why Women Hold the Key to South-East Asia’s Economic Success

More than 50 years ago, Charlotte Whitton, a feminist and the first female mayor of a major Canadian city, quipped wryly: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” She was addressing a world where women were still considered inferior, where women were more likely to attend finishing school instead of law school, should they have the opportunity to go to school at all.

Today, society has made commendable progress on the road to achieving socio-economic gender parity. We have much to be optimistic about, especially in South-East Asia. Women in developing markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines have made strides in tertiary education enrollment. Findings from the 2016 MasterCard Index of Women’s Advancement revealed that more women than men enroll in tertiary education across the ASEAN region.

These encouraging figures however, mask a darker reality, and ASEAN nations have a long way to go before they can close the gender gap in their respective markets. These markets, despite their diverse cultures and unique social landscapes, face a common paradox preventing women from achieving their full economic potential. ASEAN women shine in terms of capability, often outperforming their male counterparts, yet the portion of women in the workforce is consistently lower than that of men across the region.

Why so?

Gender bias exists on a cultural and corporate level in the ASEAN region. Across the board, social norms still prevail which see women adhering to traditional roles as wives and mothers, while men often assume the role of breadwinner. It’s a culture that can discourage women from pursuing their educational or career ambitions, and can also influence perceptions of a woman’s capability. A study commissioned by the Asian Development Bank found that women were perceived to have lower skills for the workforce than men.

In developing or food-insecure markets, boys often have more access to economically viable resources, such as nutrition, land ownership or funds, due to greater adherence to patrilineal inheritance laws, or the prevailing presumption that women are unable to manage such assets. These factors not only obstruct girls from the tools to help them break the prevailing glass ceiling, they also send negative messages about their worth as human beings.

Even in developed markets such as Singapore, which boasts a female employment rate of 89%, women remain stymied in their advancement in corporate and political sectors. Women in managerial positions are also expected to maintain a more compliant attitude; one not expected of men. As a result, they also receive less reward for their efforts. On average, they earn 10% less than men for the same job across a majority of industries.

How does it affect Asia’s economy?

Despite proving their competence, women in South-East Asia continue to face challenges in translating their knowledge assets into financial and economic empowerment. They are often relegated to informal work with no legal protection or employment benefits. In Vietnam for example, only 31% of working women are employed formally, while 69% are engaged in informal work.

Developing nations aren’t the only ones affected by this phenomenon. In Singapore, not only do women earn less than men, but one in every 10 is unable to gain formal work. Unfortunately, the lack of equal advancement opportunities for women creates a vicious cycle that perpetuates their propensity to be marginalized, economically and culturally. It also distances them from necessary vital financial services that could give them independence.

Not surprisingly, the lack of active female participation has costly ramifications on ASEAN’s economy. Simply put, investing too little in competent women reduces the quality of the workforce and hinders its capacity for competitive growth.

Conversely, investment in women’s advancement is beneficial to GDP. According to McKinsey’s Women Matter 2014 report, if every country matched the progress of gender parity of its fastest growing neighbour, global GDP could increase by $12 trillion by 2025.

Closer to home, Asia’s economy could see a 30% growth in income per capita in one generation, if female participation in the workforce rose from 57.7% to 66.2%.

How can we move forward?

The 10 countries of the ASEAN region still have much more ground to cover in the journey towards achieving gender parity, a goal that can only be achieved if it takes precedence as a national, cultural and corporate imperative. Such an endeavour, however, cannot be accomplished by one entity alone: it requires strong collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Governments and policy-makers can help narrow the gender gap by strictly enforcing equality legislation, with an added emphasis on anti-discrimination or workplace harassment laws. The private sector has to address the cultural and organizational issues that prevent women from advancing to the leadership ranks.

Right now, the question for ASEAN is: how can it improve upon the foundations it has already built as it moves towards closing the gender gap? In fact, the prevalence of bright, capable women in the region – ready and eager to do well – should be regarded as an opportunity, rather than a challenge.

While Charlotte Whitton’s observation is still relevant today, as a woman herself she must also be familiar with how much more women can achieve, given their capabilities, should they gain equal access to the right opportunities and tools.

This first appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda on 30 May 2016.

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