Em­pow­ered women needed more than ever

The Jakarta Post - - OPINION - Vu Thu Ha ANN/VIET NAM NEWS/HO CHI MINH The writer is for­eign desk ed­i­tor at Viet Nam News.

Women are the largest un­tapped reser­voir of tal­ent in the world,” former United States Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Clin­ton once said. Her words ring par­tic­u­larly true in Asia, where stereo­types and cul­tural norms con­tinue to pre­vent mil­lions of women from ful­fill­ing their real po­ten­tial.

This week, as rep­re­sen­ta­tives from 21 Asia-Pa­cific economies gather for the APEC 2017 Women and the Econ­omy Fo­rum in Viet­nam’s Thua Thien-Hue Prov­ince, it is a op­por­tune time to look more closely at the sta­tus-quo and some long-stand­ing chal­lenges to clos­ing the gen­der gap.

First, some com­pelling fig­ures. De­spite the much ac­claimed eco­nomic and so­cial progress of the past few decades, there are just two coun­tries on this vast con­ti­nent — the Philip­pines and Laos – that have made it to the top 50 of 144 coun­tries ranked in the Global Gen­der Gap Re­port 2016.

It is no sur­prise, then, that an ILO re­port, “World Em­ploy­ment and So­cial Out­look: Trends for women 2017”, shows East and South Asia as the only two re­gions in the world see­ing a re­duc­tion in the per­cent­age of work­ing women over the past decade.

The sit­u­a­tion is par­tic­u­larly wor­ri­some in South Asia, where less than one-third of the fe­male pop­u­la­tion are ac­tive in the la­bor mar­ket, 51 per­cent­age points less than the rate for males.

The pic­ture for the whole of Asia is not much brighter, ac­cord­ing to the Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank (ADB). Although most work­ing-age women in Asia wish to work, they are on av­er­age 70 per­cent less likely than men to take part in the la­bor force. The re­gion as a whole loses an es­ti­mated US$40 bil­lion each year as a re­sult of gen­der gaps in em­ploy­ment and ed­u­ca­tion.

Even when women are able to find work, they are more likely than men to be vul­ner­a­bly em­ployed, with low wages and with­out so­cial pro­tec­tion.

In 2016, the per­cent­age of women trapped in vul­ner­a­ble em­ploy­ment was 78 per­cent in South and South­west Asia and 60 per­cent in South­east Asia.

As in most other re­gions in the world, the gen­der-based pay gap is an­other prob­lem. Ac­cord­ing to ADB, a woman in Asia on av­er­age is paid 23 per­cent less than her male coun­ter­part. An OECD re­port in 2015 found the sit­u­a­tion was even worse in the re­gional eco­nomic pow­er­houses of South Korea and Ja­pan — the two coun­tries with the worst paid fe­male em­ploy­ers among 35 OECD coun­tries, with the dif­fer­ence be­ing 36.6 per­cent and 26.6 per­cent re­spec­tively.

Sev­eral factors that have con­strained women from se­cur­ing an equal foot­ing with their male coun­ter­parts in the la­bor mar­ket, like gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, low ed­u­ca­tion, bur­den of un­paid care work and limited ac­cess to fi­nance re­sources, were iden­ti­fied a long time ago.

The fail­ure to re­move these con­straints is rooted in the en­trench­ment of so­cial stereo­types and cul­tural norms in Asian coun­tries, where male chau­vin­ism is dom­i­nant and women are re­garded as in­fe­rior.

In many Asian so­ci­eties, in­clud­ing Viet­nam, girls are still told that who­ever they want to be­come, they should first be good at house­work, and ful­fill their role “by in­stinct” as a fam­ily care­taker. On the other hand, boys are groomed for “big” work and be the fam­ily’s bread­win­ner.

Worse still, many women in these so­ci­eties be­lieve that males shar­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of house­work sig­nal their fail­ure as a woman.

In Viet­nam, we have a say­ing that is in com­plete har­mony with the Con­fu­cian prin­ci­ple of women be­ing com­pletely sub­ju­gated to men in the fam­ily: “As a woman, what makes you stand higher than other women is your hus­band.”

Many Viet­namese par­ents still don’t be­lieve that girls need to climb high up the ed­u­ca­tion lad­der, be­cause the higher they study, the more dif­fi­cult it would be to find a hus­band.

Gen­der stereo­types also limit ca­reer choices for women all over the world. Men are of­ten as­so­ci­ated with jobs deemed more im­por­tant and re­quir­ing more skills, like sci­en­tists, as­tro­nauts, po­lice­men or en­gi­neers, whereas women are con­sid­ered more suit­able for “softer” jobs like re­cep­tion­ists, sec­re­taries and so on.

As a re­sult, many women end up car­ry­ing a huge bur­den of un­paid care work, down-play­ing their ca­pa­bil­ity and not dar­ing to dream big. They lose op­por­tu­ni­ties for higher ed­u­ca­tion, qual­ity jobs and deeper so­cial en­gage­ment. The per­cep­tion of women’s ca­pa­bil­ity is also af­fected. An ADB study ti­tled “Women in the work­force, an un­met po­ten­tial in Asia and the Pa­cific”, found that women were per­ceived to have lower work­ing skills than men.

It is ev­i­dent, then, that ef­forts to get more women into the main­stream econ­omy should start with chal­leng­ing and dis­man­tling deeply in­grained stereo­types.

Con­crete steps should be taken early, at home, in schools, and in com­mu­ni­ties so that boys learn to ap­pre­ci­ate, even look up to women, and un­der­stand that care-giv­ing and house­work are nat­u­ral tasks for both men and women.

Girls should be taught to trea­sure them­selves, to cher­ish and chase dreams big­ger than tra­di­tional roles as wives and moth­ers. These are fun­da­men­tal changes that might take some time, but they are in­dis­pens­able.

Mea­sures with im­me­di­ate im­pact should be im­ple­mented as well. Greater in­vest­ment in pub­lic ser­vices should lead to qual­ity child­care and care for the el­derly. Poli­cies on par­ent­ing should boost men’s role in child­birth and child­care, pro­vid­ing badly needed re­lief to over-bur­dened women.

Much has been said about the im­por­tance of pub­lic-pri­vate em­pow­er­ment ini­tia­tives. The pri­vate sec­tor can cer­tainly play a ma­jor role in im­prov­ing women’s ac­cess to fi­nan­cial sup­port, tech­nol­ogy and busi­ness ad­vice, given that a large pro­por­tion of mi­cro, small and medium-sized en­ter­prises in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion are led by women.

For ex­am­ple, just last week in Viet­nam, Face­book part­nered with gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies to launch a project sup­port­ing women en­trepreneurs with in­vest­ment, tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment, train­ing and ca­pac­ity build­ing. This is a model that should be pro­moted.

De­spite the ob­sta­cles, Asia does not lack role mod­els of suc­cess­ful women in all fields and ini­tia­tives, es­pe­cially those that ef­fect far-reach­ing changes with pos­i­tive na­tional and in­ter­na­tional im­pacts.

In busi­ness, which is the fo­cus of the on­go­ing APEC fo­rum, Asia has some ster­ling role mod­els too. Hong Kong’s Zhou Qun­fei is the rich­est self-made woman in the world, ac­cord­ing to Forbes. Viet­namese Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao has be­come South­east Asian’s first self-made woman bil­lion­aire and one of the coun­try’s two bil­lion­aires.

Chi­nese busi­ness ty­coon Jack Ma once said women were the “se­cret sauce” be­hind his com­pany’s suc­cess. We should rec­og­nize that they are the “se­cret sauce” for suc­cess of fam­i­lies around the world, and there­fore, of all na­tions. And they should be given their dues, in the form of equal­ity in the work­place, and equal ac­cess to op­por­tu­ni­ties to ad­vance their lot.

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