Female Labor Force Participation in Asia: Key Trends, Constraints, and Opportunities

Publication | October 2016

The study investigates trends among women in the workforce, the implications of higher female labor force participation for economic growth, the obstacles in achieving it, and potential policies for reducing these obstacles.

This brief reports on findings from four country studies and a companion macroeconomic study calibrated using an average Asian economy. Almost 28% of the world’s working-age women are accounted for in the four selected countries: Pakistan, where female labor force participation is rising but remains very low at 25%; Indonesia, where it is relatively high for Asia but still stagnant at 51%; the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where women’s participation in the labor force has fallen in recent years to about 64% from 73% in 1990; and the Republic of Korea, where female labor force participation remains low at 50% despite high levels of economic growth and per capita income. In all these countries, male labor force participation hovers around 80% for individuals 15 years and older, except for the Republic of Korea, where male labor force participation was 72% in 2013.

Key Messages:

  • In Asia, female labor force participation ranges from 16% in Afghanistan to 83% in Nepal, while male labor force participation ranges from 52% in Timor-Leste to 89% in Nepal. Women’s participation in the labor force has remained low despite significant economic growth, declining fertility rates, and improved female education.
  • Patterns in the data suggest several prominent constraints to increasing female labor force participation. Social norms emphasize women’s domestic responsibilities, limit mobility, restrict the subset of jobs considered appropriate for women, and impede their access to information.
  • Evidence suggests that job quotas, expanding access to information, creating higher returns to labor, and putting free trade policies in place can improve female labor force participation. Further research on vocational training, better matching of jobs to skills, the granting of parental leave or flexible working hours, and facilitating mobility will shed light on these promising interventions for increasing labor force participation of women.
  • More rigorous evaluation of existing and proposed policies is needed, and further research, access to better data, and pilot testing of new policies will help to ensure identification of clear and effective channels for increasing women’s participation in the labor force.

Additional Details

  • Economics
  • Gender Equality
  • Social development and protection
  • Participation and empowerment
  • Social protection - labor and employment
  • China, People's Republic of
  • Indonesia
  • Korea, Republic of
  • Pakistan
  • ABF168496-2
  • 978-92-9257-627-1 (Print)
  • 978-92-9257-628-8 (e-ISBN)
  • 2071-7202 (Print)
  • 2218-2675 (e-ISBN)

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