HONG KONG, CHINA – Taking strong proactive measures to get more women into productive, well-paid jobs, entrepreneurship, and leadership positions will bring multiple and long-lasting economic and social benefits to developing Asia, said the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in an update of its flagship annual economic publication, Asian Development Outlook 2015

“Both Asian men and women have gained tremendously from the rapid growth in the region. Yet closing the gender gaps in pay and in participation rates in the labor market is still work in progress,” said ADB Chief Economist Shang-Jin Wei. “Strengthening women’s place in the labor market is not only a social justice issue, but also a matter of maximizing economic efficiency. By eliminating all gender disparities to make full use of women’s potential, Asia and the Pacific could see a rise in income by about 30% over a generation.”

In a special theme chapter, titled “Enabling Women, Energizing Asia”, the report notes that Asia’s economic boom has delivered many dividends to girls and women in areas such as literacy, life expectancy, and reduced female infant and child mortality rates. But women’s participation in Asia’s workforce has actually fallen from 56% in 1990 to 49% in 2013 even as it increased in every other region of the world. Some of the fall can be attributed to rising incomes and women spending more time in school. An unfair load of housework and child and elderly care, cultural biases, limited vocational training, and institutional and legal obstacles also act as barriers. 

Large numbers of unskilled women with low levels of education are confined to informal, lowly paid, and often risky jobs. Avenues for entrepreneurship are often blocked by legal restrictions on property rights for women and lack of access to finance. Educated women also face obstacles in their career paths, with little access to senior positions. Female presence in Asia’s corporate boardrooms and political leadership is limited as well. 

Despite girls having caught up with boys in education in recent years, developing Asia still has some of the largest gaps in the wages that women earn vis-à-vis men, highlighting that education on its own is not enough to close the gap in earnings, the report said. 

Enabling more women to earn independent incomes can catalyze change in entrenched cultural and social norms. A financially independent woman gains bargaining power within her household, molds the attitudes of the next generation, and affects the decisions families make about young girls’ futures. Further, as women gain influence in business, civil service, and politics, they raise important issues of family and social dimensions higher on the national agenda.

The report highlights that women’s employment in paid work creates a positive feedback loop, as the next generation of women builds on the gains made by the current generation. Eliciting women’s best contributions to the workforce not only improves equality for women, it promises to boost prosperity and energize Asia. 

ADB, based in Manila, is dedicated to reducing poverty in Asia and the Pacific through inclusive economic growth, environmentally sustainable growth, and regional integration. Established in 1966, it is owned by 67 members – 48 from the region. In 2014, ADB assistance totaled $22.9 billion, including cofinancing of $9.2 billion.

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