Beyond participation: Substantive economic opportunities for women in ASEAN is good for growth, innovation and the climate.

AAYLF delegate from Australia Elizabeth Banerd explores female economic empowerment in the context of  ASEAN, and the implications of such

In 2017, Australia’s female labour force participation rate overtook that of Asia for the first time since 1990. Asia’s female labour force participation rate had decreased steadily for almost two decades, from 66% to 59%, while Australia’s had an almost identical inverse trajectory.[1] However, in ASEAN nations the trend is very different. A series of flat lines from 40% in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines to 80% in the socialist states of Laos PDR, Vietnam and Cambodia: flat lines because they have remained largely unchanged in two decades.


In the same year, Australia supported ASEAN’s release of the Manila Statement on Mainstreaming Women’s Economic Empowerment.[2]  This statement outlined a view to adopt concrete actions to increase women’s economic participation. The statement is clear in intent but lacking in imperative: it is no longer about fixing the flat lines of participation, but ensuring that participation is substantive and impactful. At the close of the decade in an increasingly turbulent region, substantive action on gender equality supports economic growth, innovation and climate action in ASEAN, and is an area of strength for ASEAN-Australia relations.



Gender Equality for Economic Growth

 ASEAN is a region of strong economic growth, posting just above 5% in 2018.[3] However, this figure belies the diversity of economies within ASEAN, and the diversity of women’s participation in these economies – in quantity and quality.

Women’s economic inclusion globally brings high rewards. The ADB estimates that “Asia would see a 30% growth in income per capita in one generation if female participation in the workforce rose to 66.2%.”[4] However, participation rates tell only a partial story.

 In the Philippines and Indonesia, a low participation rate hides some of the highest rates in ASEAN of women in senior management (32.8% in the Philippines) and on boards (14% in Indonesia). In Vietnam, conversely, women occupy only 13% of senior management and 15% of board positions, despite a high participation rate.[5] Leadership diversity is good for profits and innovation, and this is a dividend even economies with many women in the workforce can miss out on.  


Identifying Opportunity

 In ASEAN, improving the quality of women’s economic activity would naturally differ country to country. In highly agricultural nations like Cambodia, Laos PDR, and Myanmar, ensuring women have access to the same productive assets as men could help to increase yields by 20-30%[6], and help reduce climate-destructive practices such as deforestation.[7]

 In Singapore and Thailand, women are less represented in high-growth and high-skilled sectors such as value-added manufacturing and industries central to digital transformation.[8] This means that women are less likely to benefit from major ASEAN policies investing in such high value sectors, and that such sectors will risk slower growth and innovation.  

In Vietnam, only 31% of women are employed in the formal sector[9], creating vulnerabilities which preclude women from benefiting from ASEAN trade agreements. In Laos, a lack of female ownership over agricultural work leads women to work across the border, exposing them to exploitation. As ASEAN works to improve economic integration and increase trade, it is important to remember that it’s not about who has a job currently: perception of opportunity can mean the difference between protection and risk for many women in ASEAN.



Australia’s Role in Driving Change

 The discussions of 2017 set a path for Australia-ASEAN relations that is secondary in many conversations, but crucial to the future of the region. Women’s economic empowerment in ASEAN must be about much more than participation, and Australia has been and continues to be a strong voice for profound change in this area.[10] If the ASEAN-Australia grouping is to become an economic power able to balance tensions in the region for stability and prosperity, women are key to this success.


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