UN Women - United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women

Remarks by Lakshmi Puri at a CSW58 side event on Women of Asia at Work

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at a CSW58 side event by the Asia Society on ‘Women of Asia at Work”, New York, 12 March 2014.

Date: 12 March 2014

[The following remarks are adapted from the speech delivered]

Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening. 

It is a great pleasure to join you today. I would like to thank the Asia society for organizing this event on the margins of the Commission on the Status of Women, which is meeting this week and next week at the UN. 

This year’s priority theme at the Commission is to assess how well the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have fared for women and girls. This is an important opportunity to look back and take stock of progress and gaps, and to provide a basis to inform the next development agenda, which will start after we reach the deadline for the MDGs, beyond 2015. 

The Commission’s theme is also very relevant to our discussion today. We know that women’s inclusion in the labour force, and access to decent work, is a key indicator of women’s empowerment and gender equality. 

Unfortunately, this did not feature prominently as a goal or target in the MDG framework. Only one MDG indicator focuses on the “share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector”. 

In Asia, this share is very low, at 31 per cent, and only marginally increased since 1990 when it was at 29 per cent. Indeed women’s participation in the labor force in the Asia-Pacific region is the second lowest in the world (after the Arab States).

And, despite the fact that the region is characterized by stark socio-economic contrasts – with exponential economic growth on the one hand and two-thirds of the world’s poor on the other hand – almost all countries and sub-regions rank low in women’s participation in the workforce. 

Interestingly, the division does not follow the development level of each country. Japan and the Philippines, for example, have almost the same rate of women’s participation in the labor force, even with a slightly higher rate for the latter (49.4 per cent in Japan; 49.7 per cent in the Philippines). In South Asia, the average is below 40 per cent in all countries, except in the Maldives and Nepal. 

This shows that women’s participation in the workforce is not just a matter of economic development. It is a matter of addressing the structural constraints that perpetuate discrimination against women in all spheres of life. It is a matter of putting in places the right policies that will first benefit women and girls, and ultimately society as a whole. 

We know what needs to be addressed. A value chain of education, skills development and capabilities building must lead to a value chain of recruitment, retention and promotion with women’s participation at the center.

An overarching principle must be the breaking of gender stereotypes which lead to discrimination. Companies, and public institutions for that matter, tend to be patriarchal spaces - men's sphere. We need to get the men to transform that consciously and for women to claim that space. This not only done by enacting policies, it is done by changing hearts and minds too. 

Specifically, there are four types of interventions that we know can increase women’s participation. 

First, educational outcomes need to translate into greater representation in the workforce. Primary and secondary education and literacy must lay strong foundations while vocational and tertiary education as well as professional training must be prioritized for women and girls on a lifelong basis.

Policies can help women and men to be recruited on an equal basis. For example, actions include: eliminating restrictions in labor and employment; enforcing standards and laws that penalize sex-segregation and gender-based discrimination; providing incentives for employers to expand jobs for women in sectors where gender disparity is wide. This requires investments in skills-development, professional training and continuing education. It also requires incentives for women and girls to enter fields that tend to be male-dominated such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), finance, trade and others.

The second set of measures needs to specifically address women in vulnerable employment and the non-formal sector. Women in Asia are concentrated in low income, low quality jobs. They lack social protection and are more vulnerable to crises. 

Evidence shows that the 2008 crisis had a major negative effect on women’s employment in Asia-Pacific. The bulk of the increase in global unemployment after the crisis was in East Asia and South Asia. Most of the job gains following the crisis have been low-paying, propelling a “race to the bottom” which exacerbates poverty and inequality.

Strengthening of social protection policies and labour standards is essential, especially outside the formal sector. Measures in this area also need to foster real and effective women’s entrepreneurship. Too many women are in the micro-sector. They need support to become macro-entrepreneurs. 

Thirdly, measures can support women to stay at work by reducing women’s unpaid care work and by promoting family-friendly working environments. Women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work, such as caring and housework. 

Much of that is linked to child-bearing and child-rearing. In the region, many working women in their thirties quit work to care for their child and seek to return to work in their forties. For example, in Japan, over 60 per cent of women leave the workforce after their first child. With the rapid population ageing in the region, women’s care work for the elderly is also expected to increase sharply.  

Unpaid care work needs to be recognized, reduced and redistributed. This means putting in place family-friendly leave, flexibility policies, affordable childcare, early child development programs and infrastructure development. The private sector can lead the way by creating family-friendly working environment and policies, attracting women into non-traditional roles and sectors, and reviewing human resource policies and systems for addressing discrimination.

Engaging men and boys is essential to redistribute care work. A better sharing of family and household responsibilities has shown to be successful in increasing women’s retention in the work force. Adequate paternity leave can be a successful entry point, as well as incentives for men to be more represented in care professions. 

Addressing the gender pay gap is also essential, as the decision for the woman to leave her employment, rather than the man, is often an economic one. Women on average earn between 10 and 30 per cent less than working men and Asia has the highest gender pay gap in the world. 

Addressing discrimination and violence in the workplace is another essential strategy for retention. This entails solid policies against all forms of harassment, including sexual harassment, that continue to push women out of offices and public spaces. 

Policies must also support women’s re-entry into the workforce. These include providing career counselling, job replacement services, technical and vocal education and training tailored to individual situations and needs for these women. In the Republic of Korea, 112 Women’s Reemployment Support Centers were established and helped 410,000 career-interrupted women find a new job.  

Finally, policies must support women advance in their career to reach senior management positions. Asian countries have a low ratio of female directors and little progress is happing compared to other regions. Strategies include creating a pool of promising women professionals and providing them with education and training to develop leadership and organizational skills.  

Steps are also increasingly taken to introduce quotas to accelerate women’s representation in decision making positions in the corporate sector – including women on company boards. In Malaysia, legislation calls for a target of 30 per cent of women on boards of listed companies by 2016.  

In conclusion, we need to make it clear that women’s increased participation in the labor market does not necessarily mean fewer jobs for men. It is not a zero-sum game. Multiple studies show that closing these gender gaps could yield enormous dividends for all. For example, a Goldman Sachs study finds that narrowing gender gaps in employment could push per capita income in emerging markets up to 14 per cent higher by 2020. And a UN study finds that removing the barriers to women's full economic participation could boost the Asia Pacific economy by up to $89 billion USD a year. 

All these measures need to be embedded within a greater set of policies that address structural inequalities and discrimination in all spheres of life. They need to be linked to public and private participation, to changes in the macroeconomic framework, to gender-responsive planning and budgeting, to ending violence against women, and so on. This is also what we have learned from the MDGs: a piecemeal approach to achieving gender equality will not work; only a comprehensive and transformative one will. 

Thank you.