How to unlock Asia's social, economic potential? Better jobs for women

Women in Bangladesh, where the Asian Development Bank funds employment and training programs for women. Women’s full potential to contribute to the region’s economic and social progress is not yet maximized, according to a book on gender equality and the labor market launched at ADB’s headquarters in Manila, Philippines. Photo by: ADB

Many people still think that women are only capable of taking care of the family and managing households — but there’s nothing farther from the truth nowadays.

For Asia to realize and unleash its potential as an economic and development powerhouse, changing that traditional mindset and looking at women as important development stakeholders and providing them with decent and better employment opportunities is absolutely vital, according to the Asian Development Bank.

“Attitudes towards providing decent work for men and women — irrespective of their background — continue to be ambiguous, complex, and controversial,” said P. Imrana Jalal, ADB senior specialist on gender and development.

“However, there is ample evidence to show that providing equitable employment opportunities, remuneration and treatment of the sexes is important for social justice and smart economics,” she said.

Despite the relative advances on gender equality in the international development scene over the past few years — particularly in Asia-Pacific — gender and labor experts highlighted in a book launch at the bank’s headquarters in Manila that women’s full potential to contribute to the region’s economic and social progress is not yet maximized and there’s room for much more growth.

‘Working’ the talk

James Nugent, the bank’s director general for Southeast Asia, explained that the trend in women’s employment and job opportunities over the past couple of years has “plateaued” and needs a boost for progress to be sustainable.

“ADB should not only walk the talk, but it also has to ‘work the talk’ in pushing gender equality in the labor market,” Nugent said, adding that additional skills training, increased access to capital, better compensation and work environment and focusing on entrepreneurship, among others, can be catalysts.

Among the myriad labor gender gaps in the Asia-Pacific region, the labor force participation rate and wage disparity prove that the labor market is still dominated by men.

In the Philippines, for example, the LFP gap stood at 28.5 percentage points — with 31 percent of working-age women not working because of “household or family duties” — in 2012, compared to only 3 percent of men. In terms of the wage gap, the estimated proportion of women’s annual earnings compared to men’s in the Philippines, Cambodia and Kazakhstan registers at less than 71 percent.

Challenges, solutions

For ADB, gender equality is “ascertained by reference to 7 gender gaps or deficits”. This includes the LFP rate, human capital, unpaid domestic and care work burden, the employment rate, and the share of vulnerable employment, decent work and social protection.

Lawrence Jeff Johnson, International Labor Organization country director in Manila, noted that what’s being debated right now is just “the tip of the iceberg” and discussions need to dig deeper.

To narrow or adequately bridge these gaps, ADB said that national governments need to increase the involvement of women in technical and vocational education and training programs, especially in industries previously dominated by men such as industry, manufacturing, and even entrepreneurship.

According to Nugent, the more women continue to be untapped as potential employees and entrepreneurs, the more substantial the lack of gains that women’s labor can contribute to a country.

Governments should also widen and strengthen social protection coverage for women in the informal sector, while making sure that vulnerabilities are hurdled.

“Simple, effective mechanisms should be put in place to allow women to seek redress for discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace,” the bank concluded.

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She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and the U.K. Department for International Development.

See more:

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Why more women should enter the workforce
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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.