Ig­nor­ing the role of women is dis­mal eco­nom­ics

Mint Asia ST - - News - WIL­LIAM PE­SEK

Irony

abounds as sex­ual pre­da­tion among pow­er­ful men from Hol­ly­wood’s Har­vey We­in­stein to Don­ald Trump makes head­lines just as data show women glob­ally fall­ing fur­ther and fur­ther be­hind.

The World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s (WEF’S) an­nual gen­der re­port is a great re­al­ity check. Gov­ern­ments from New Delhi to Tokyo talk a good game of bet­ter uti­liz­ing the other half of pop­u­la­tions, but progress is un­der­whelm­ing.

It’s not just about hu­man rights, but eco­nom­ics. Na­tions that do best on gen­der par­ity are more in­no­va­tive, pro­duc­tive and pros­per­ous. The stronger and more di­verse the labour pool, the bet­ter the econ­omy.

Viewed through this win­dow, WEF’S 2017 re­port makes for sober read­ing.

In­dia plunged 21 places—and that’s not a typo. Granted, “wome­nomics” wasn’t a core plank of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s struc­tural re­form push. But In­dia trail­ing Liberia, Mal­dives and Swazi­land is a wake-up call for Modi­nomics. In­dia is now 10 notches lower than in 2006, when WEF be­gan its an­nual ex­er­cise in nam­ing and sham­ing gov­ern­ments.

Ja­pan is do­ing even worse. Sure, Tokyo only fell three rungs to 114th, but that puts a Group of Seven (G-7) na­tion be­hind Guinea, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and six places be­hind In­dia.

What makes Ja­pan’s per­for­mance so damn­ing is that gen­der is sup­pos­edly a cen­tral el­e­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe’s re­vival scheme. Awk­wardly, the lat­est WEF down­grade dropped the same day Abe­nomics hosted its lat­est World Assem­bly for Women, with Trump’s daugh­ter Ivanka Trump as the key­note speaker.

It’s high time Asia in­ter­nal­ized how much gen­der dis­par­i­ties hurt growth. In 2015, the United Na­tions es­ti­mated that fail­ure to uti­lize fe­male tal­ent costs Asia about $90 bil­lion in an­nual out­put.

That’s a ter­ri­bly con­ser­va­tive gues­ti­mate, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the back­slid­ing in the Asian na­tions thought to be most suc­cess­ful on gen­der par­ity.

The Philip­pines, for ex­am­ple, wors­ened to 10th place from sev­enth. Laos went from 43rd to 64th, Sin­ga­pore from 55th to 65th, Viet­nam from 65th to 69th, Thai­land from 71st to 75th, China from 99th to 100th and South Korea from 116th to 118th.

Credit where it’s due: In­done­sia im­proved to 84th from 88th, Malaysia to 104th from 106th, Cam­bo­dia to 99th from 112th. Over­all, though, this hasn’t been a par­tic­u­larly stel­lar year for Asian women.

“Gen­der equal­ity and GDP (gross do­mes­tic prod­uct) per capita are strongly cor­re­lated,” says Koh Miyaoi, gen­der ad­vi­sor to the United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (UNDP) in Bangkok. “The more equal­ity there is among the sexes in a so­ci­ety, the more likely it is that the so­ci­ety is also pros­per­ous, ed­u­cated and healthy.”

The #Metoo hash­tag move­ment is spread­ing across the globe, as some South Asian aca­demics fac­ing ques­tions can at­test.

While so­cial me­dia con­fronts men who dis­re­spect women, why isn’t Asia do­ing more to level the play­ing field?

It’s a global ques­tion, of course. This is the first year since 2006 that the gen­er­al­ized gen­der gap widened. Still, Asia is a dis­crim­i­na­tion para­dox.

De­spite Asia’s dis­par­i­ties, it’s em­pow­ered more fe­male lead­ers than any other re­gion. Pres­i­dent Trump’s 2016 elec­tion op­po­nent Hil­lary Clin­ton is on her “What Hap­pened?” book tour, a re­minder Amer­ica has yet to break the ul­ti­mate glass ceil­ing.

Bangladesh, In­dia, In­done­sia, Myan­mar, Nepal, Pak­istan, the Philip­pines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thai­land and even China—soong Ching Ling briefly was hon­orary pres­i­dent in the early 1980s—achieved what the most ad­vanced econ­omy hasn’t.

Even here, As­terisks are re­quired. Women lead­ers in Asia mostly hail from dy­nas­tic fam­i­lies: Indira Gandhi and So­nia Gandhi of In­dia, Me­gawati Soekarnop­u­tri of In­done­sia, Be­nazir Bhutto of Pak­istan, Co­ra­zon Aquino and Glo­ria Ar­royo of the Philip­pines, Chan­drika Ku­maratunga of Sri Lanka, Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra of Thai­land, Park Geun-hye of South Korea and so on.

The Asia re­gion is strug­gling to raise in­comes for many of its 3 bil­lion peo­ple. How dumb is it to squan­der roughly the an­nual GDP of Ukraine to pro­tect the male-led sta­tus quo?

Gov­ern­ments should strengthen hu­man cap­i­tal: greater in­vest­ments in ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing and laws pro­tect­ing women’s rights. UNDP says that three out of ev­ery four hours of un­paid work is done by women.

The key for more de­vel­oped economies like Ja­pan and South Korea is poli­cies that prod pa­tri­ar­chal power struc­tures to em­brace the 21st cen­tury.

Law­mak­ers should en­cour­age more women to run for pub­lic of­fice, pres­sure board­rooms to di­ver­sify and per­haps im­pose quo­tas.

If gov­ern­ments won’t do the right thing out of fair­ness, hit them with the money an­gle. “The eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity in get­ting more women in­volved in the work­force is stag­ger­ing,” says Mckin­sey’s Do­minic Bar­ton. “At the mi­cro level, we con­tinue to find a strong pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion be­tween the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in lead­er­ship roles and the fi­nan­cial per­for­mance of businesses.”

Do­ing so, Mckin­sey es­ti­mates, could add $12 tril­lion to global GDP. Asia should gun for a big­ger piece of that wind­fall, giv­ing an eco­nomic di­men­sion to the #Metoo zeit­geist.

Wil­liam Pe­sek, based in Tokyo, is a for­mer colum­nist for Bar­ron’s and Bloomberg and au­thor of Ja­paniza­tion: What the World Can Learn from Ja­pan’s Lost Decades.

His Twit­ter han­dle is @williampe­sek.

While so­cial me­dia con­fronts men who dis­re­spect women, why isn’t Asia do­ing more to level the play­ing field?

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