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The future of Asia is female

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Sri Lankan factory workers pack clothing for the export market. SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

The future of Asia is female

The Straits Times/ANN: Asia is a powerhouse of growth in the global economy. From the 1980s onwards, economic development across the region has lifted millions out of poverty and doubled Asia’s share of the world economy.

However, signs are there that things are moderating.

Growth in China and India is no longer in double digits, many countries have to face the challenge of the middle income trap and those at the highest levels of income have tried hard to further boost their annual GDP growth. Add this to the challenge of climate change, ageing populations and increasing inequalities across the region.

Politicians, policymakers and pundits have debated what’s driving this trend in detail. Yet to us, pinpointing the source of the issue is simple. Asia has a vast, powerful and dynamic driver of growth that is largely untapped: the extraordinary potential of its women and girls.

According to the Asian Development Bank, currently less than half of women in Asia are in the workforce compared with 80 per cent of men.

Furthermore, for the women who do work, they are paid almost 25 per cent less than their male counterparts. The International Labour Organisation found that positions of leadership in the economy, the top management jobs, are occupied by women in only one in three cases.

Cost of gender disparity

It is deep, unjust gender disparity that is holding Asia back. So big that McKinsey had estimated that if nothing is done, the global economy stands to lose about $4.5 trillion (S$6.2 trillion) in annual GDP by 2025. That’s the output of an economy the size of Japan being lost every single year.

For Asia, now is the time to invest in women and girls. To break down the barriers that stand in the way of their, and the region’s, economic success.

There are so many things we need to do, but we want to call out just three of the biggest issues that business, governments and civil society must get behind.

The first is challenging and changing everything in Asian societies that keeps women and girls from reaching their full potential in the workforce.

We need to upend the gender norms that mean women take on the bulk of unpaid labour and care work.

This can limit their options for career progression or see them stuck in low paid sectors of the economy that are also vulnerable to replacement by automation and advances in machinery.

Culture of fear

We must also end the culture of fear for girls in Asia’s cities. Part of this is changing attitudes, but it’s also about building more safety infrastructure. In an era of increased urbanisation, with girls and young women in cities having more opportunities for work and education than ever before, it is intolerable that they cannot leave their homes without fear of harassment, abuse or exploitation.

Asia’s high-value potential growth sectors are in digital, technology and electronics. It is imperative the large digitisation of the economy becomes truly transformative and inclusive for all.

Not only are digital and technological industries male-dominated, but there is also an entrenched bias throughout a child’s education that subjects relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) are only for boys and men. Families also fear the Internet will expose their daughters to harassment and exploitation online.

This is the second thing that needs to change. We must make smart investments in the future generation of workers by equipping girls with the skills, means and capacities they need not only to succeed in but also to drive these growth sectors of the future economy.

Skills and role models

Governments must invest more in ensuring that digital skills as well as information and communications technology (ICT) courses are integrated throughout all stages of education and are equally accessible to both girls and boys. Educational resources should focus on e-learning so that young people actively use technologies as they learn and improve ICT skills across the board.

All education and training resources should be gender-sensitive to ensure they don’t perpetuate discriminatory norms by, for instance, using all-male examples.

The private sector should offer apprenticeships and vocational skills training to nurture the talents of young women, including those who might not have had access to a more traditional educational background. T

his will allow girls and young women to have greater exposure to the opportunities available in digital and Stem industries and facilitate their transition into work.

More female teachers need to be trained and employed in digital learning centres to create a more equitable and safe learning environment for girls. Governments and Internet companies should also commit to protecting and enhancing women’s online rights and privacy, and to combating the harassment of women and girls online.

The final thing we need to do is ensure girls have the right role models and mentors so they can really be the ones leading the way.

If girls see more women in positions of leadership either in the boardroom, in senior management or in elected offices, this starts to challenge the preconceptions of the types of jobs that girls should aspire to.

The private sector can do a lot more to address this issue by expanding opportunities for women to succeed in their firms.

This should not be limited to gender quotas in the boardroom, but also create mentoring schemes to nurture future talent, to support and influence personal development and career aspirations and break down some of the occupational stereotypes that dictate the career choices of girls and boys.

Female mentors in particular will help to drive this change. We don’t just want girls to get good jobs, we want them to be the ones creating new jobs. Inventing new ideas, building new tech start-ups into big business, becoming the upcoming leaders of the future Asian economy.

This month in Hanoi, we are co-chairing the World Economic Forum on Asean. Our message for public officials, business leaders, civil society and educational institutions is clear. In Asia, the future is female.

Sri Mulyani Indrawati is the Finance Minister of Indonesia.
Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen is the CEO of Plan International.

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