How Asia is Leading the Way in Women's Labor Rights

February 26, 2019


Over 50 years ago, Chairman Mao famously proclaimed women in his country held up half the sky. Since then, China has made great strides in encouraging gender equality. The 2017 UN Gender Inequality Index ranked China 36th globally, ahead of the United States in terms of gender equality. China, though, is only one small player in a region where women’s equality is taken very seriously. In many ways, Asia is well ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to women’s empowerment. Nowhere is this truer than in the workforce. This International Women’s Day it’s important to look at how, as well as the lessons other countries can learn from a region often considered backwards in its thinking about women.



Women’s Labor Force Participation


Iceland is often hailed as the most progressive country when it comes to female participation in the workforce. In reality, it just ranks highest among developed countries. When we look at the World Bank’s female labor participation rate rankings, Iceland is outpaced by most of south-east Asia. Nepal, for example, bests Iceland by over 10%.


Across the Asia-Pacific region, the ILO also estimates participation levels consistently above those in most other regions of the world.



Of course, not all of this is in the formal economic sector. Part of these participation rates may include informal areas like day labor, domestic work, and mom-and-pop operations. Whether formal or informal, though, opportunities to work spur economic growth, contribute to independence, and a sense of equality.



Maternity Leave


Women in the United States are on average, entitled to a whopping 12 days of paid materiality leave. Compare this to places like Vietnam, where the Government provides for six months of paid time off for new mothers. Across the Asia-Pacific region, statutory entitlements average 93 days off for maternity leave. This is on par with OECD countries.




Breaking the Glass Ceiling


The MeToo movement has inspired a new generation of women to try and break the ever-present glass ceiling in the workplace. For years, women have struggled with unequal pay and opportunities, especially moving up the corporate ladder. In places like China, though, this doesn’t seem to be as pervasive an issue.


According to a survey by Grant Thornton International, China topped the world in women holding senior managerial positions. More than half of all senior management roles were held by women. This is well above the global average of 24% and the U.S. average of 20%. Mastercard has also reported a third of all businesses in Vietnam and Singapore are owned by women, compared to only a quarter in the U.S. and Britain.



The Reasons Why


Why, though, is this the case? How are some of the developing world’s largest economies able to employ more of their female population than advanced western economies? There are several theories.

  • Asia is young. While there are greying populations like Japan and Korea, most of Asia is quite young. The median age in the region is 30 years old. That means there is a large working-age population to pull from. As more and more enter the workforce, we are likely to see female participation rates continue to rise.

  • Policies are plentiful. As we’ve seen with maternity leave and family friendly work policies, there are concerted efforts by regional governments to encourage female equality. In developed economies like Japan and Singapore, this is promulgated by the need for entrepreneurship and advancement. For less developed economies across the region, governments have recognized women’s role in encouraging further development. As most governments in the region are centralized, they are capitalizing on this strength to the benefit of their economies.

  • Sectors are different. Across the region, particularly in developing south-east Asian countries, there is a larger-than-average service sector. This, added to high levels of female education versus the rest of the world, may be a motivating factor in women joining the workforce.


While there is still much work to be done, we should take solace in the progress made for women across Asia-Pacific. We should also look to the region for inspiration and best practices to further the cause for female equality the world over. 


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