East and South Asia are the only two regions which have seen a reducing percentage of working women over the past two decades, according to a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
In a world where the gender gap is decreasing, East and South Asia stand out as the only two regions where female labour force participation rates have decreased over the past two decades, says the report titled ILO World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends for women 2017. Reducing gender gaps could add a whopping $3.2 trillion to the Asia-Pacific economy, significantly benefiting women and the society at large, the report adds.
At the global level, however, there have been some improvements in reducing gender gaps in labour force participation. However, this has been less apparent in Asia. Women are significantly less likely than men to participate in the labour market, and those who do look for work are less likely than men to find it. What's more, women in the region have jobs that tend to be of lower quality and offers lower pay compared to their male counterparts.
Less than one in three women in South Asia are active in the labour market (28.6 per cent), representing a female participation rate that is 51 percentage points less than the rate for males. Moreover, this gap has widened over the past decade more than anywhere else in the world. In East Asia, the gap is less worrisome as the participation rate for women remains the second highest globally at 61.3 per cent.
In 2014, G20 leaders made a commitment to reduce the gap in participation rates between men and women by 25 per cent by 2025. The report says if this goal could be realised worldwide, it has the potential to add $5.8 trillion to the global economy, of which $3.2 trillion would accrue to the Asia-Pacific alone.
"This could also unlock large potential tax revenues - an important consideration as the region adjusts to 'new normal' lower levels of economic growth," said Richard Horne, an economist in the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and co-author of the report.
Besides these sizable economic benefits, engaging more women in the world of work would have a major impact on their well-being. The report finds around 80 per cent of women polled in East Asia and Southeast Asia and the Pacific stated that they would rather be working in a paid job than staying solely at home. However, around 40 per cent of working-age women in these regions are not in the labour market, suggesting that major obstacles continue to exist that prevent women from fully engaging in paid work.
"The obstacles that prevent women from joining the workforce are still too firmly rooted in the region. We need to improve family-friendly work policies and have better care options for women to be able to take part in the labour market," said Tomoko Nishimoto, ILO's Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.
The report also shares several instances to improve participation of women in labour force. One of them would be access to quality childcare, which would relieve them of the social constraint of taking care of children and also advance the positive development of the future generation. One such example is the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in India that provides childcare services through a co-operative that accommodates the working hours of parents while taking in children of a very young age and ensuring the provision of health services (including nutrition). Such services enable women to work more, and also contribute to alleviating food and healthcare costs at home, which is a particularly acute challenge in low-income families.
Over 20 per cent of the female respondents in the Asia-Pacific region cited 'work/family balance' as a major challenge to labour participation. Around 22 per cent of the respondents in East Asia - more than any other region - cited 'lack of affordable care' as a challenge faced by women.
Understandably, reshaping of gender-role norms is imperative for improving equality in labour market conditions.