You have read many reports on fair gender representation in the workplace. This in my opinion has, at the very least, been heading in the right direction. Sure, the gender pay gap remains a real issue, as does female representation in upper management positions, but according to the latest data out of the United Nation’s specialized International Labor Organization, regions as different as sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America have all experienced an increase in female labor force participation rates in the two decades between 1995 and 2015.
Yet in Asia, the proportion of women working has stagnated or reduced. Strange but true. This is according to Transformation of Women at Work in Asia, a new joint ILO-Sage book that analyzes the latest data and extensive fieldwork from the region. Between 1995 and 2015, Southeast Asia female workforce participation rates sat unmoved at just under 59 percent, while in East Asia, rates declined from 69 percent to 62 percent, and from 35 percent to 28 percent in Southern Asia.
Being time poor is a major constraint on women working outside the home. And the worrisome trend is just the tip of the iceberg, he says, when it comes to identifying the economic and social limits that continue to restrict half of the region’s population from fulfilling their potential in the workforce. Many companies assume that there is someone at home taking care of their employee’s family. And that someone is typically a woman.
The other issue is with less population growth across Asia, increased pressure is being placed on older and more conservative generations — mostly men — to continue working, while younger and more progressive demographics, which should include more women, struggle to fill the growing demand.
Still, the future holds more opportunity for women to enter the workforce, especially considering Asia’s aging and shrinking populations. For example, Japan’s population dropped by a record 308,000 in 2016, according to recent research by the International Monetary Fund. And labor shortages in China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand are expected as early as 2020.
A future with more women in the workplace is inevitable; the only question is when societies and policies will come around to accepting, and then actively promoting, women’s inclusion. While cultural norms still need time to evolve, simple economic necessity means companies will need more people available to work — be they women or men. The recognition and elimination of these barriers are key to solving the problem. Work and fulfilling family life are not mutually exclusive.