Employment: Despite progress, for many women it still feels like the dark ages
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Employment: Despite progress, for many women it still feels like the dark ages

We take a look at the problems still facing women in the workplace, the old-fashioned laws still holding them back, the lack of access to resources, and the stigma many still face just for working.

It’s easy to get complacent when it comes to gender equality in the workplace. It feels like society has come on leaps and bounds towards levelling the playing field, especially for many workers in the city with socially-conscious employers are now taking measures to ensure work life is not a daily battle for recognition.

Many women are now able to choose a career path with little resistance, taking advantage of education and opportunities available, as is proven by more women than men now attending university in many Southeast Asian countries.

SEE ALSO: Asia needs more than just quotas to get women into parliament

But while progress has undoubtedly been made, figures – and day-to-day experience – show there is still a lot of work to be done. While some women have the choice and opportunity, Asia-Pacific as a region is still way behind when it comes to universal equality.

Extreme cases of discrimination

In extreme cases, women are outlawed from taking up certain position for reasons ranging from the pathetic to the downright bizarre.

According to the World Bank, women are barred from certain jobs in 104 countries. The 2018 report Women, Business and the Law, shows these countries have lists of professions that are deemed unsuitable for women.

After surveying 189 economies, these were the key findings globally:

  • In 40 percent of the all economies examined, women are restricted from working in certain industries (including mining, construction and transportation).
  • In 30 percent, they are not allowed to work in jobs that are deemed hazardous, arduous or “morally inappropriate.”
  • In 15 percent, women are restricted from working the same night hours as men.

In four countries women cannot register a business. In 18 a husband can stop his wife working. Some laws group women in with children when it comes to vulnerability to exploitation and ability to make valid choices.

Up until 2011, the Philippines had a law banning women from working at night. Similarly, in Mumbai, India, female shopkeepers cannot work as late as male ones.

While many of these laws are a hangover from former colonisers and legislators have not got around to changing them, others are a surprisingly recent invent, such as those in Vietnam.

One of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia introduced a law in 2013 that banned women from driving tractors over 50 horsepower.

While the region is slowly changing with the times – 40 to 50 percent of economies in South, East Asia and the Pacific implemented at least one reform in the last year – cases like those in Vietnam are a reminder that women are far from viewed as equal, not just in the workplace, but in the eyes of the law.


Women work on the production line at Complete Honour Footwear Industrial, a footwear factory owned by a Taiwan company, in Kampong Speu, Cambodia, July 5, 2018. Source: Reuters

Women are still on the back foot

Those are extreme examples of workplace discrimination, and while its easy to scoff at the ridiculous notion that women can’t work in cold water while they’re menstruating – as is the case in China – even beyond these extremes, women in Asia-Pacific are frequently on the back foot.

Globally, women’s labour force participation has stagnated and indeed fallen from 51.3 percent in 1990 to 48.4 percent in 2018. Women remain half as likely as men to have full-time wage jobs. Those who have paid work earn up to one-third less than men.

According to the Economist, in 2018, just 7 percent of government leaders, 15 percent of board members and around 3 percent of chief executives were female. Of America’s Fortune 500 companies, 23 were led by women; in Britain, the leaders of the FTSE 100 included more men called David (8) than it did women (7).

SEE ALSO: Is Malaysia ready for 30 percent female representation?

In East and Southeast Asia (excluding China), women only account for 34 percent of GDP despite (obviously) making up half of the population. That’s below other developing regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa at 39 percent and Eastern Europe and Central Asia at 41 percent.

A report from management consultant McKinsey & Company predicts that advancing women’s equality in Asia Pacific could add a whopping US$4.5 trillion to the region’s collective GDP annually. To put that in perspective, that’s equivalent of adding an economy the combined size of Germany and Austria each year.

Change is needed – but how do we make it happen?

While that sounds undeniably great, making it happen will take some time as it involves changing some deep-seated biases, ones that society has exhibited a stubborn unwillingness to relinquish.

To achieve the impressive sounding boost to GDP, McKinsey & Company recommend tackling the issue with a three-pronged approach.

One, increase women’s labour-force participation rate; two, increase the number of paid hours women work (part-time versus full-time mix of jobs); three, raise women’s productivity relative to men’s by adding more women to higher-productivity sectors.

Easy, right? Well, yes, in theory. But in reality to achieve this gender parity at work, countries must first achieve gender parity in society, and that is where it gets tricky.


Women’s March, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. March 10, 2018. Source: Twitter

McKinsey used 15 indicators of gender equality in work and society to measure how close a country was to reaching complete gender parity, and the results weren’t great.

While some in the region stood out for commendable progress – namely the Philippines, New Zealand and Singapore. Others did not, with Bangladesh, India, Japan, Nepal, Pakistan, and South Korea being furthest from gender parity.

In many of these countries there is still the cultural perception that women stay at home while the men earn the money. Women are seen as carers and homemakers left to look after young and often elderly family members. In some places, just leaving the house is restricted.

That’s not to say governments haven’t tried to bridge this gap. Many have but with varied degrees of success. These attitudes are well ingrained and shifting them, no matter how good a government’s reasoning, can be hard.

Shifting millennia of gender bias

Let’s take Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who launched a “womenomics” movement in 2014 to redress Japan’s deep-rooted gender inequality and lift the country out of decades of economic stagnation.

Abe desire to create a “Japan in which women shine,” to achieve this he’s working to fix childcare shortages, and pushing companies to be more accommodating of mothers returning to work. His aim is to have 30 percent of leadership positions filled by women by 2020.

While there has been some improvement, the country’s entrenched culture of sexual discrimination has proven a formidable opponent.

According to the World Economic Forum, there has been an increase of two million women in the workplace since 2012, a major contributing factor in Japan’s economic growth.

SEE ALSO: Understanding youth unemployment and its impact on Asean

Despite this, Japan has actually slipped in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) global ranking of the gender gap – falling from 111th in 2016 to 114th in 2017.

Only a paltry 3.7 percent of managerial positions in public companies are women. While this is more than triple the rate in 2012, it is still dismally short of the 30 percent target set (and quickly abandoned) for 2020. Sensing failure, the target has been reduced to 10 percent.

The figures in Japan are disappointing, especially when you consider it was one of the first developed countries in the world to outlaw gender discrimination. The slow progress doesn’t bode well for those lagging behind.

Women’s involvement in the workforce is a metaphorical pot of gold for many countries looking to boost their GDP whilst struggling with a shrinking workforce. These days, that constitutes most countries as an ageing population threaten a country’s very ability to function.

Women could prove the untapped resource that holds the solution.

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