Different genders, different decisions: Why Asian women aren’t in work

Published on Monday, 11 May 2015

Published by Valerie Mercer-Blackman and Sakiko Tanaka on Monday, 11 May 2015

A trainee at the ADB-supported Women's Development Center project in Cambodia.
A trainee at the ADB-supported Women's Development Center project in Cambodia.

Both men and women only have 24 hours in every day.

A new ADB report shows that how women decide to spend that time differs to men, and that is key to understanding why many women don’t join the formal workforce; and why, if they do, they are still likely to earn less than men and less likely to gain promotion.

Understanding these decisions will help governments and companies in developing Asia shape policies and practices to bring more women into paid work and, in doing so, boost their economies.

Female labor force participation rates—that is, the percentage of women of working age who are formally employed—vary widely across Asia. In low-income countries like Cambodia or the Lao PDR, women are only 3% less likely than men to be in work. In Pakistan or Afghanistan, however, that figure jumps to 80%.

The gaps don’t always correlate to a country’s economic growth rate, lower fertility rates, or levels of education. In fact, women’s participation in the workforce tends to be high in low-income countries, as families need to maximize earnings from all their members, but then falls as countries get wealthier and women find their time is more valuable in other activities than at the formal workplace.

What is common across all countries though, regardless of wealth, is that women take into account a variety of often competing issues when choosing how to spend their day, and make different choices to men, who tend to opt to spend their day earning what they can.

Women take on the bulk of childcare, the majority of household tasks, including tending farms or collecting water and firewood. In deciding on whether or not to work, women consider issues like the flexibility of potential jobs to allow them to continue their domestic roles, the health and income of other family members, their bargaining power within the household to give them greater flexibility with their time, distance and safety, and how society views the role of women overall.

Infographic by Ricasol Cruz-Calaluan

In short, unlike men, the wage is far from the sole issue for women.

Moreover, women don’t consider these issues once, when they first opt to join the workforce. Rather, they continuously reevaluate their decisions over the course of their working lives so, for example, many may well decide to leave their job if family circumstances change. That they tend to earn less than men, have fewer chances for promotion, or face discrimination in the workplace all often support the decision to quit.

This is not to say women aren’t productive just because the lack of a formal wage means their activity isn’t counted in GDP. Women are far more likely than men to be in informal work, for example. In fact, women themselves may contribute to underreporting their work; despite working 14 hours a day tending cattle on the family farm, a Bangladeshi woman still identified herself as a housewife, conjuring up an image of a women at home doing little more than sweeping floors or watching daytime soap operas.

For policymakers, then, measures to bring more women into the workforce could include:

  • More childcare options to free up women to go to work.
  • Flexible working hours, and enforced maternity and paternity leave.
  • Safe transportation to safe workplaces.
  • Greater vocational training to gain the skills for higher paid positions and promotion.
  • Better job matching and information services so women (and men) are aware of what is out there.

Certainly, different countries require different approaches. How do you think women can be encouraged to apply their talents in the workplace in your country?