Only 49 percent of working age women in developing Asia participates in the labour force in contrast to 80 percent of men. And this number has in fact reduced from 56 percent in 1990.
In South Asia, women’s workforce participation is 30 percent against 80 percent of men, the lowest in the region. On average, a woman in developing Asia is paid only 77 percent that of her male counterpart. Less than 10 percent of positions on corporate boards are held by women and just over 10 percent of government ministers in the region are female.
We must change this. Gender equality matters in its own right but it also makes economic sense. The report titled ‘Asian Development Outlook 2015 Update’ by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that eliminating gender disparities in Asia would boost per capita income of the region by 70 percent within two generations and help sustain its current pace of economic growth and development. This is particularly important with many Asian countries seeing their demographic dividend fade. Helping women earn more will also reduce poverty rates. There are five main ways to collectively achieve this.
Lending a hand
We must work harder to make sure more girls complete their secondary and tertiary schooling. It is also important to boost their access to technical and vocational training since it helps women get jobs in higher-paying professions such as engineering or high-tech industries. The ADB is addressing these issues across Asia. For instance, in Lao PDR, the government has been provided with technical vocational education and training with tuition subsidies, stipends, and boarding facilities for girls. They learn skills in construction and machine repair. The Bank also offers employers financial support when they give apprenticeships to female graduates in such male-dominated sectors. Other programmes supported by Bank like JobStart in the Philippines-which provides internships and job placements for young graduates-help women get their crucial first foot on the job ladder.
The Bank is also encouraging women to start and expand businesses in many countries through small and medium enterprise financing projects. Often, women’s limited land ownership restrains their capacity to borrow money. There are some promising solutions to this problem. In Nepal, the introduction of land titles jointly held by husbands and wives, and a 30 percent land registration tax exemption in rural areas when ownership is transferred to women, are reaping rewards. Being able to use movable assets such as machinery and jewellery as collateral is also making it easier for female entrepreneurs to access finance. Expansion of credit registries to include microfinance would help women establish a credit record to access bigger loans.
Across rural Asia, the Bank boosts access to water, electricity, affordable transportation, and time-saving technologies such as clean cook stoves, giving millions of women a relief from drudgery and more time to generate income. Affordable childcare services would also help women retain their jobs. However, a recent World Bank study shows that only a third of Asian countries have public preschool child care while most countries in South Asia and the Pacific provide no work flexibility for mothers of young children. Developing Asia needs to have clear policies and measures to help mothers pursue their careers, including tax rebates or other financial support for childcare and labour practices like flexible working hours.
Laws in some countries in Asia still restrict the type of jobs women can and can not do. Such laws exist in 19 out of 34 developed and developing Asian countries and apply most often to mining, construction, and manufacturing. Many countries do not have laws against discrimination in hiring or to ensure equal pay for equal work. This must change if countries are to make best use of their human capital. Anti-discrimination laws should be rigorously enforced and complemented by awareness campaigns to prevent prejudice in the workplace. Harassment and violence against women should not be tolerated at home, at work, or on the way to work. They should not deter women from seeking jobs.
We are seeing some positive changes, with quotas for women in boardrooms and in government. Malaysia in 2011 mandated that by 2016, women must make up 30 percent of senior managers at firms with over 250 employees.
Meanwhile, quotas in local government in South Asia have pushed more women into elected positions. In Bangladesh, the ADB and other partners promote local women leaders through their urban infrastructure projects. This ensures that local budgets are allocated infrastructure giving priority to women such as schools, water, and sanitation. The Bank’s flagship Asia Women Leaders Program helps train women in public administration to become effective leaders.
Bringing more women into the workplace, whether on the factory floor, the executive office, or the ministerial suite will help Asia-and its two billion women-unleash their full potential. If the workforce reflects the population, everyone wins.
(Nakao is the president of the Asian Development Bank)