ASIA: The Full Spectrum on Gender Balance
By Avivah Wittenberg-Cox
The role of men and women in the economy varies greatly from country to country around the world. But in no other region are these differences quite as extreme as they are in Asia. A combination of cultural, historic and economic pressures have a huge impact on the openness to the changing roles of women seen around the world.
At one end, you have the Philippines. Run by a female President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Philippines boasts the world’s highest percentage of women in management (58%). It also has one of the highest birth rates in the region.
At the other end, you have Japan. Japan is at the developed nations’ bottom end on several rankings related to gender. Japan has one of the lowest percentages of women in management (6.9%), along with one of the lowest birth rates in the world. A government White Paper published last year announced an objective of 30% of women in all fields of business. But in a culture where women are traditionally expected to stop working upon marriage, or – at best – after the birth of their first child, not too many policy makers have realized that there might be a link between the two.
Other countries in the world have discovered that in the 21st century, women vote with their wombs. If countries force them to choose between work and family, they choose work. The OECD has shown that in this century there is a positive correlation between high participation rates of women in the economy and high birth rates. For a country like Japan, where 22% of the population is now over 65 years old, this may be a revolutionary reversal. That is perhaps what the 25% of unmarried women in their early thirties are trying to say…
In China, the gender balance that was imposed by the Communist regime is gradually being worn away by market economy trends. The kind of public infrastructure and policies that underlay women’s economic roles (daycare, etc) have been eaten away. Yet vestiges remain, there are many powerful female role models in Chinese business.
“Other countries in the world have discovered that in the 21st century, women vote with their wombs. If countries force them to choose between work and family, they choose work.”
Most of the Talent
What many of these countries have in common is that the majority of university graduates today are women. So the challenge for business and political leaders is to recognize that if they are attracting, recruiting and promoting a majority of men in 2008, they are sourcing talent from a minority of the pool. Not the best guarantee of getting the best quality.
Goldman Sachs has said that simply by reducing the gender gap in participation rates between men and women, Japan could get a 16% boost to GDP (Europe 13% and the US 9%).
What can Asia learn from the West and vice versa? There are many lessons to be learned from other countries. This is true as much within Asia as across regions. Public policy is a huge lever in facilitating and supporting the economic contribution that women can offer.
The most progressive Western European countries, such as Norway, Sweden or France have applied potent combinations of fiscal policies, child care and educational facilities and even politically-imposed quotas. Norway has legislated that 40% of corporate board directors had to be women by the beginning of 2008. (For more on Norway’s Quota click here).
The US has taken a far more private sector-driven approach, where individual companies have pushed gender balance internally. While there is very little public policy to support working women, individual companies have been relatively successful in developing their skills. (Click here for our article on gender balance in US companies compared to Asia and Europe). This can be seen around the world and even in countries like Japan, where American employers remain employers of choice for ambitious Japanese women.
Communism has much to teach us on gender balance, and the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe, like China, made resolute use of women and men’s economic input. While there was perhaps much to challenge, there was also in this approach, something to be learned for future attempts to rebalance gender.
“There are many lessons to be learned from other countries. This is true as much within Asia as across regions. Public policy is a huge lever in facilitating and supporting the economic contribution that women can offer.”
Key Success Factors in rebalancing gender
Some of the key success factors in rebalancing gender in any company or country around the world include the following:
- Don’t see gender issues as a ‘women’s issue’ or a diversity issue. It is a key driver of economic growth and opportunity today.
- Don’t try to ‘fix’ women by making assumptions about their ambitions or desires. Enable them to make real choices about work and family, and the world shows that the ideal today is both.
- Recognise that it is male mindsets as much as female mindsets that need to evolve. And this takes education, awareness and training. Include men from the very first step of any gender initiatives.
Your economy will benefit from better gender balance. So, we would argue will prosperity, birth rates and the willingness of some of those women to marry again…
This article was also published on the website PublicAffairsAsia.
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