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G20 Leaders Pledge Inclusive Growth for Women: More Promises or Real Possibility?

December 3, 2014

By Hana A. Satriyo

Under the blazing heat of Brisbane on Sunday, November 16, leaders of the 20 countries with the highest GDPs in the world released a joint communiqué focusing on economic concerns, highlighting plans to increase global economic growth, create jobs, increase trade, and reduce poverty. One of the important highlights of this year’s communiqué is article 9 which declared a commitment to reduce the gap in participation rates in the workforce between men and women in the G20 countries by 25 percent and pledged for 100 million more women in the labor force by 2025.

Jakarta commuters

Women make up more than half of the population in Asia, and the UN estimates that the Asia-Pacific economy would earn an additional $89 billion annually if women were able to achieve their full economic potential in these countries. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Reducing the gap in women’s workforce participation rate and increasing job creation will inarguably contribute to improving the status of women across Asia, where labor participation rates range from a high 80 percent in Nepal and 79 percent in Cambodia, to a low 16 percent in Afghanistan and 24 percent in Pakistan.

However, reducing the participation rate gap and creating jobs is not sufficient to reduce the gender inequality that created the participation gaps in the first place. To break the barriers of women’s full participation and achieve gender equality that will contribute to sustainable and inclusive growth of quality jobs, other economic and social measures are required.

Women make up more than half of the population in Asia, and the UN estimates that the Asia-Pacific economy would earn an additional $89 billion annually if women were able to achieve their full economic potential in these countries. According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity now stands at 60 percent worldwide, having closed by 4 percent from 56 percent in 2006.

Economic related policy measures that affect women’s participation in the workforce include the persistent gender gap in pay, limited child care facilities, and low work place safety. The pay gap is not only a developing countries’ phenomenon – OECD reported an average gender wage gap of 15 percent among the OECD countries, with women earning 82 percent of what men earn, with the highest gap of nearly 38 percent in South Korea. Lower pay for women is in large part a result of the persistence perception around traditional gender roles. Men work because they are the family “breadwinner,” while women work just to “add extra cash” to their family’s economic needs and thus their contribution is perceived as an optional choice. This assumption is clearly not applicable to most poor women who have no option other than working to meet the family’s needs. The gender pay gap continues to contribute to an insufficient appreciation of women’s contribution to the labor force.

The commitment by the G20 leaders to create 100 million new jobs refers primarily to formal jobs. Many such jobs in the formal sector lack the necessary childcare facilities and the flexibility that women – who, particularly in developing countries, still serve as the main care giver of children and the elderly – need. In Asia, there are wide spectrums of working mothers with different situations that affect their employment options and income generation.

Urbanization and demographic changes also present challenges to women who need and want to work. With the increasing absence of grandparents and “aunties and nieces” to assist, the option of working in factories are mostly limited to young women who are not married or without child. Families with small children often accept work at home from companies offering little pay and almost no protection and insurance. Yet, the arrangement allows them to care for children due to the flexible hours. To facilitate more women in the workforce, especially working mothers, affordable childcare will need to be provided.

Changing society’s perception, culture, and habit is not easy. The role of media and advertising to shift traditional views on men and women’s role in society is important. As women will continue to work in informal sectors and in small-scale companies, it is key to continue focusing on gender and economic work in the small- medium-sized enterprise (SME) sectors. The Asia Foundation’s recent study in four APEC economies which identifies the gaps between men and female owned SMEs, found that women-owned firms in Asia face many barriers including finance, social factors, and business-related technologies, which disproportionately impact women-owned businesses and translate into a significant missed opportunity for economic growth. Women SME owners also reported permit application and export regulations to be complicated and not applicable to many of their type of products. Corruption and red tape is especially problematic for women SME owners as they often lack the same level of financial support or access to credit as male SME owners do.

Aside from these many challenges, it is crucial to note that the number of women who are entering the work force continues to rise every year, with several exceptions, especially in developed countries. In Indonesia, for example, the number of formal jobs grew by only 2.8 million, while the labor force increased by 7.2 million. To eradicate poverty and lower the income gap, creation of jobs is key. Yet, should we want women to fill these jobs, we need to focus on creating quality jobs and workplaces that support working women and working mothers. In this respect, the G20 communiqué stops short. The hidden and missing statistics of unpaid care workers have implications for the persistent gender gaps in labor force participation. If lowering the gap in workforce participation by 25 percent is to be a serious target in the next 11 years, sharp and sophisticated gender analysis of this reality needs to become a focal point at the next G20 meetings.

Hana A. Satriyo is the director of The Asia Foundation’s Gender and Women’s Participation Program in Indonesia. She can be reached at hana.satriyo@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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