Few Asian paradoxes boggle the mind more than the region’s relationship with gender. It is awash in gaping disparities, even in its most developed nation, Japan.
And yet Asia has empowered more female leaders than anywhere else. Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and even China – Soong Ching Ling was named honorary president briefly in the early 1980s – all smashed the thickest glass ceilings.
It’s a milestone with which the US is struggling, as Hillary Clinton can attest. For average Asian women though, the latest figures from the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union make for grim reading.
Take the last 23 years, a period during which progress for women entering parliament significantly lagged the global norm. In 2017, the average proportion of Asian women in upper and lower house seats was about 18%, compared with 23% in sub-Saharan Africa, 28% in the Americas and 27% in Europe.
Progress, yes, but a far cry from where Asia thought it would be back in 1995, as the Nikkei Asian Review reports. In a recent exposé, the Nikkei calculated that Asia had improved by 5.4 percentage points over the last 23 years, back when the region led the globe in progress, along with Europe.
The loss of momentum is worth considering as the world recently commemorated International Women’s Day, and it augurs poorly for Asia’s economic trajectory.
Caveats abound. Not to denigrate personal achievements, but the common thread is family dynasties: India’s Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, Indonesia’s Megawati Soekarnoputri, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, Philippine presidents Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo, Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Kumaratunga, South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra and potentially Wan Azizah binti Wan Ismail in Malaysia.
The bigger issue, though, is how Asia is falling behind even as the #MeToo movement gains traction globally.
Take Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rarely misses a chance to tout his policy since 2012 of making Japan a place where “all women can shine”. And yet Japan still ranks 158th out of 193 countries tracked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Japan, a Group of Seven nation, trails Botswana, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and sits 85 rungs lower than China and 41 lower than North Korea.
South Korea, East Asia’s No. 3 economy, is faring slightly better. Though it is 48 spots ahead of Tokyo in female political participation, the World Economic Forum gives Seoul lower marks in this annual gender-empowerment report – 118th to Japan’s 114th ranking. China is 100th.
Putting a number on the economic costs of Asia’s gender disparities is a tall task. In 2015, the United Nations offered a guestimate that the patriarchal status quo costs Asia roughly $90 billion per year in lost output. That seems a terribly conservative figure.
Goldman Sachs, for example, says Japan’s annual gross domestic product would be 15% higher if female labor participation matched that of men, about 80%. Similar dynamics squander output throughout the region.
Research from the International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperating and Development and the WEF show nations that best utilize female labor forces are more productive, innovative and vibrant. Governments that tread carefully on narrowing gender pay and opportunity gaps do so to the detriment of global competitiveness.
In a report coinciding with International Women’s Day, IMF head Christine Lagarde said it’s high time Asian governments acted in big ways and small. “Unlocking this transformative potential means pushing for more equal opportunities: for example, equality in legal rights for men and women, and equality in access to education, health, and finance. Just as important is the fundamental issue of ensuring a safe environment for all, including protection against harassment.”
It’s time, too, for Asian governments to move against mounting economic losses resulting from gender imbalances.