Why you should care
Because social justice makes economic sense too.
Over the past two decades, it seems like the hard march toward fair gender representation in the workplace has, at the very least, been heading in the right direction. Sure, the gender pay gap remains a real issue, as does female representation in upper management positions, but according to the latest data out of the United Nations’ specialized International Labor Organization, regions as different as sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America have all experienced an increase in female labor force participation rates in the two decades between 1995 and 2015.
Yet one massive region is bucking the trend:
In Asia, the number of female workers has either stagnated or decreased.
This is according to Transformation of Women at Work in Asia, a new joint ILO-Sage book that analyzes the latest data and extensive fieldwork from the region. Between 1995 and 2015, Southeast Asia female workforce participation rates sat unmoved at just under 59 percent, while in East Asia, rates declined from 69 percent to 62 percent, and from 35 percent to 28 percent in Southern Asia.
Time poverty is a major constraint on women working outside the home.
Sher Singh Verick, deputy director, International Labor Organization country office
“The most surprising discovery was the extent of gender inequality in even the richest countries in Asia,” says Sher Singh Verick, deputy director of the ILO country office in India and one of the book’s co-authors. And the worrisome trend is just the tip of the iceberg, he says, when it comes to identifying the economic and social limits that continue to restrict half of the region’s population from fulfilling their potential in the workforce.
One problem: Many companies assume that there is someone at home taking care of their employee’s family, explains Doris Magsaysay Ho, CEO of Manila-based Magsaysay Shipping Group of Companies and an outspoken advocate for women’s workplace equality. And that someone is typically a woman. There is a need, Magsaysay Ho says, for the private sector to accept that most female Asian employees need time off to look after their families. “If companies acknowledge that,” she adds, “then maybe we can begin to see more things like day care in the workplace, or more time allowed to work from home.”
The report recommends a holistic labor reformation, calling for better education, job opportunities, legal rights and a reduction in what Verick calls the unfair “time burden” — whereby a woman’s work extends to unpaid, time-sapping jobs like cooking, cleaning and looking after both children and the elderly. If, that is, governments and corporations are genuine about making a change. “Time poverty is a major constraint on women working outside the home,” says Verick.
Another problem: With less population growth across Asia, increased pressure is being placed on older and more conservative generations — mostly men — to continue working, while younger and more progressive demographics, which should include more women, struggle to fill the growing demand.
To help close the gender gap, ILO economists estimate that it would take a $3.2 trillion boost to introduce new state-sponsored policies and activities designed to encourage more women to go to work. According to Verick’s research, readjusting the labor market will prove to be about as crucial to any country’s economy as almost any other factor. “Overall, countries need to place gender equality in the labor market at the center of economic policy,” he explains.
Still, the future holds more opportunity for women to enter the workforce, especially considering Asia’s aging and shrinking populations. For example, Japan’s population dropped by a record 308,000 in 2016, according to recent research by the International Monetary Fund. And labor shortages in China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand are expected as early as 2020.
For business leaders like Magsaysay Ho, a future with more women in the workplace is inevitable; the only question is when societies and policies will come around to accepting, and then actively promoting, women’s inclusion. While cultural norms still need time to evolve, simple economic necessity means companies will need more people available to work — be they women or men.