Asia Pacific must address imbalances for women in the workforce

by Joni Simpson, International Labour Organization
Tuesday, 8 March 2016 07:51 GMT

Female labourers wearing helmets take a break from laying underground electricity cables in Ahmedabad, India, March 7, 2016. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Asia Pacific, world's most dynamic and economically viable region, won't achieve its potential unless it fights gender inequality

As we gear up for International Women’s Day, it’s clear the future of work for women in Asia Pacific will not be very promising unless more determined efforts are made. 

The U.N. International Labour Organization’s new "Women at Work: Trends 2016" spotlights a number of specific factors that continue to hamper women’s ability to contribute fully to their economies and societies.

Generally, the overall difference in the number of men and women working - the labour force participation gender gap - has declined only marginally. In fact, in East Asia and South Asia it has actually widened. This means fewer women in the workforce. Women’s absence from the workforce means they don’t contribute taxes or into pension schemes.

Furthermore, lack of social protection puts women at a disadvantage, translating into poverty for many women, in particular for women in South Asia, where more than 74 percent of women have no social protection. This is not a "women’s problem" as the impacts are far reaching on women, men, their families and economies looking forward.

For me, the most worrisome thing in this report is the persistence of the gender pay gap. Globally, where a man is paid $1 for a task, a woman is paid just 77 cents for doing the same thing. And, at the current rate of progress, the report says, it will take more than 70 years to close this gap. This means that even our granddaughters may not get paid the same as our grandsons for doing the same job!

The gender pay gap is slowing down progress for Asian economies. The pay gap has a direct impact on spending – women tend to invest more on children and family well-being, women are also responsible for 80 percent of purchases – which is important for businesses and economies.

Part of this can be put down to occupational segregation. In other words, jobs that are seen as being for women tend to be lower skilled, lower paying and "valuable"; examples include care, health and education work. On the other hand, men tend to dominate in sectors seen as more valuable, with higher growth potential, for example science and technology.

This ghettoised perception of women (and men) as being more suited to specific job categories, limits their aspirations and their opportunities for a brighter future and curbs countries’, companies’ and organisations’ ability to leverage the full innovation and potential of their people. It also pushes women who start businesses into less lucrative, growth oriented sectors, where it is even harder to generate jobs and value-add.

Women also spend, on average, two-and-a-half times more time than men on unpaid household and care work. They are also frequently penalised when they take breaks to have children or care for family members.  Consequently they do not fulfill their full potential to contribute to the economy and society – and this is damaging to all of us. 

The report cautions that general economic development alone will not tackle these problems. So, sitting back and waiting for our economies to grow us out of inequality will fail. Leadership is required. Specific, proactive and targeted policy actions, with strong enforcement and accountability, will be necessary to address these imbalances and to allow Asia Pacific to achieve its full potential, as the most dynamic and economically viable region in the world.

By valuing work deemed female-oriented and paying it commensurate to the skills and competencies required for work of equal value, this could translate into a significant contribution towards ending poverty, increasing decent work and promoting women’s empowerment, as is called for in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the United Nations in 2015.

By tackling occupational segregation, breaking stereotypes and evaluating jobs and competencies, by recognising the importance of care work and encouraging a fairer distribution of unpaid care work through family-friendly policies for workers, the benefits of these measures will far outpace the costs of closing these gaps, leading to a more prosperous future for us all.

Joni Simpson is a Bangkok-based senior specialist on gender, equality and non-discrimination for the International Labour Organization.