Things are Looking Up for Women in ASEAN
But to keep the momentum going, more needs to be done
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
“Women empowerment is not just about giving women a second chance,” explains Chloe Cho, Presenter and Executive Producer of Channel News Asia in Korea and Singapore.
“It’s really about unleashing the benefits and potential that societies and economies can actually reap. Let’s not forget that ASEAN, which is the third largest economic labor force, has so much to gain.”
This was her introduction at last November’s panel on Unleashing Women Economic Power and Human Capital Development at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Manila.
Worldwide, 50 percent of women are working in the formal sector. In Southeast Asia, however, the figure is lower. In Vietnam, only 30 percent of women are working formally. “The keyword here is formally,” says Cho. “In Singapore, more than 90 percent are working, but the common denominator here is that women earn less.”
A report from the World Economic Forum says that this gender disparity has widened for the first time in more than a decade, and it will take a hundred years to close that gap, says Cho. She adds it’s time that we do something about it.
Below are some takeaways from the panel:
1. Gender equality is evident in the Philippines
One of the participants at the forum is Teresita Sy-Coson, SM Investment Corp.’s Vice Chairperson, who won “Management Man of the Year” from the Management Association of the Philippines back in 2016. She says things have changed in terms of closing the gender gap.
“Here in the Philippines, we are fortunate that there isn’t much gender issue here,” Sy-Coson explains. “If there’s anything that countries would like to emulate from us, it’s parity in terms of gender in the workplace and in businesses.”
2. There are close to 60 million women entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia
“The story varies a lot per region but if you look at ASEAN, it’s a front-runner in the region,” says Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and 10th Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. “The record of growth it has achieved has been accompanied by increased women’s participation. It is close to 60 percent which is quite remarkable.”
She also mentions the role of women entrepreneurs in the region, saying that the number of ASEAN women entrepreneurs is close to 60 million. “It’s definitely high compared to other developing countries and other sub-regions.”
The share of women in top management in Southeast Asia is also above the Asian average of 14 percent, she says. It is also notably higher in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore.
The Philippines ranked 10th in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index, the highest for any country in the region for gender equality.
Fe Perez-Agudo, President and CEO of Hyundai Asia Resources Inc., who is one among 10 children, has achieved success in adulthood by “bulldozing in a male-dominated industry” that wrote off underdogs.
“First of all, if you work doubly hard — the number one thing that women should work on is education. Because education is the number one leveler and penetration strategy for women to lead and succeed in [a male-dominated] industry.”
She adds one must reframe their attitude towards women and shatter stereotypes about them. She recalls a meeting she had with Hyundai back in 2001, which was dominated by Korean men. “They only had one question — ‘You are a woman. What do you know about cars?’” she narrates. She wanted to walk out, but then without blinking, she asked, “You are Korean. What do you know about the Philippine market?”
3. Gender wage gap has been reduced over time
Akhtar says the gender wage gap has been reduced over time. “In a global assessment of wage equality, for similar work done by men and women, Singapore ranks fourth, Malaysia sixth, and Cambodia is also 15th, which is not bad.”
She says, of course the Philippines stands out as an exception. “I’m very proud of that as I’ve lived 15 years in Manila.”
It’s notable that there is only 17 percent of women in the boardroom level in Malaysia. Prime Minister Najib Razak has even resorted to naming and shaming companies without any women in the boardroom.
“We are equal, and we show our performance through our grit,” Datuk Hafsah Hashim, CEO of SME Corporation in Malaysia, explains.
In Malaysia, there are also programs that empower women such as PEAK which is done through Malaysia Innovation Academy. ‘P” is for the performance of women, “E” is for empowerment of women, “A” is for acceleration of women into the ecosystem, and “K” is for knowledge.
For women who have gone back to the workforce, the government has given 12 months of tax rebates for them. “Women are recognized as what our government is doing today, and hopefully, in doing so, more women are empowered into the ecosystem,” she says.