Twenty Years after Beijing: We Must Invest Still More in Asia’s Women and Girls

A female taxi driver in Nepal.
A female taxi driver in Nepal.

By Bindu N. Lohani

There has certainly been progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted in 1995 – but we still have a long way to go.

This month in New York, global leaders have gathered to discuss the progress of gender equality and women’s empowerment since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted in 1995. The heads of all the multilateral development banks, including ADB, issued a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to support their member countries in narrowing gender gaps. 

Certainly, there has been progress. In Asia and the Pacific, more women can access health care and education, find gainful employment, and participate in politics than was the case 20 years ago.

But we have a long way to go. The World Economic Forum estimates that at the current rate of progress, globally, it will take another 81 years to close the gender gap in economic participation alone. We cannot afford to wait. To achieve true equality and empowerment, policy makers and development planners must stop thinking of women and girls in terms of “micro” projects only but should start investing in them—on a large scale—as untapped resources for sustained growth.

The 2012 OECD report Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now provides a framework in the “Three Es”: education, employment, and entrepreneurship. In all these areas, we need to think big, with a clear vision of a better-balanced future.

Take education, for example. Asian economies are rapidly shifting from labor-intensive to skills-intensive industries and services. This calls for drastic changes in the type and nature of education and technical vocational education and training (TVET) for both girls and boys. In advanced and developing countries alike, women are under-represented in science, technology, and engineering, mathematics (STEM) studies, which are likely to offer relatively better career and earnings prospects. Moreover, in developing countries, young women are more likely than men to be “NEET” (not in education, employment, or training), largely due to early marriage or caring duties at home.

It is crucial to give young women substantial opportunities to gain higher skills in STEM and other “nontraditional” fields. More scholarships and social marketing should be considered to attract girls to these subjects. Schools, TVET institutions, and industries must be given incentives to draw young women into better paying, higher-level skill areas and high growth sectors. Parents, teachers, and communities must help girls at an early age to overcome the assumption that their career aspirations are limited by traditional roles. They must coach girls and boys alike to defy gender stereotypes and seek opportunities for change.

The Additional Skills Acquisition Program in Kerala, India offers a great example. The ADB-financed portion of the program aims to ensure that, of the 310,000 participants, more than 55% will be young females studying transport, ICT, trade, banking, insurance, and other services. This will encourage a strategic shift from agriculture and other primary sector training. 

As for employment, ADB and the International Labour Organization estimate that Asia and Pacific has a gender gap of over 20% in the labor force participation rate. Gender wage gaps have worsened, with women’s earnings relative to men’s dropping from 67% in 1990 to 62% in 2012, according to ADB’s Key Indicators 2014. This decline must be reversed.

Globally, women are more likely to work in lower-paid, part-time, non-wage jobs and unpaid family work. Even in OECD countries women earn 16% less than men, and female top earners earn 21% less than their male counterparts. Women are under-represented in senior management in the business sector globally, and the pipeline gets “leaky” as the level goes up. How can this situation be reversed?

There is a clear business case for placing more women in senior levels positions. Global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that companies with the highest percentage of women on executive committees exceeded all-male executives by 41% in a return on equity and by 56% in operating results. National economies can expect significant GDP gains when women’s employment rate equals that of men. Japan, for example, could lift its GDP by as much as 12.5%, according to recent estimates by the investment bank, Goldman Sachs.

To promote faster progress, Asian economies must massively invest in training for women business leaders. This will also help nurture role models for future women leaders, which are largely lacking in the region. Public policies should support affordable child care and provide incentives to companies that promote work-life balance, enforce maternity and paternity leaves, and introduce business plans to place more women in managerial positions.  

On entrepreneurship, there is no doubt that microfinance has played an important role in empowering poor women. But it is not enough. Globally, using the International Finance Corporation Enterprise Financial Gap Database, as many as 70% of women-owned small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries are unserved or underserved by financial institutions – a financing gap of around $285 billion. The Goldman Sachs Global Market Institute estimates that closing the credit gap for women-owned SMEs by 2020 could increase average per capita incomes by about 12% by 2030 across the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and the People’s Republic of China) and the high growth potential economies of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, Republic of Korea,  and Viet Nam.

Asia must think in terms of billions of dollars to meet women entrepreneurs’ needs for finance and business development training.  Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Small Business Program could be one such model. This 5-year, $100 million program offers business and management education, mentoring, and networking opportunities to 10,000 under-served female entrepreneurs in 40 developing countries, engaging the top business schools around the world.

Legal equality for women in business in opening bank accounts and various laws related to property rights, taxes and judicial codes would also have a major impact on the overall economy. The recent IMF study found that in half of the countries where women gain legal equality, the female labor force participation rate increased by 5 percentage points in the following five years.

Clearly, investing in women and girls reaps significant social and economic benefits to individuals, families and countries. Let’s boost those investments before another two decades elapse.