The countries belonging to the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) are entering a new phase, with the launch of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) that will bind them together closer than ever before. Today is the deadline for the community.
With a joint population of 600 million and US$2.4 trillion (S$3.4 trillion) economy, the AEC is a giant economic bloc that deserves its moment in history. Ten countries in the South-east Asian region coming together and creating the necessary regional balance to counter the dominating presence of China and India, is an important feat.
This article, however, is not congratulatory. Rather, it is cautionary. It asks a simple question: how will the AEC benefit the women in the Asean countries? The very simple, and unfortunate, answer to that question is, not a whole lot. The main reason why women will most likely not be largely affected by a boost in trade, investment and skilled labour integration is that for a vast majority of the women, these are not sectors that affect their lives.
By and large, there are vast inequalities in women's labour force participation in the Asean countries that inhibit them from taking advantage of the opportunities created by the AEC or other jolts in the job market. Women's employment is relatively stable, and consistently lower, than men's. Unless targeted interventions are undertaken immediately, the AEC or any other economic market jolt will leave the women in Asean unaffected.
Stripped down to the bare bones, the issue of women's limited and poor quality participation in the Asean economic community is a labour market problem. Despite having a large supply of female labour, skilled and unskilled, women are not proportionately represented in the various professions and sectors in the Asean countries. What explains this and why is this important?
It is not as though women aren't working and are leading a life of leisure. Evidence everywhere shows that women work all the time. On average, married women work 12-15 hours a day, a lot of which is unpaid and, importantly from a macroeconomic perspective, uncounted. Statistical data systems in most countries are not yet geared to take into account the time-use patterns of work. As a result, women's work, which subsidises the rest of the economic activities, remains undercounted.
In a purely econometric measurement sense, such undercounting is a grave measurement error.
There are other supply side and demand side reasons for women's lacklustre participation in the economy, especially in high-growth sectors that pay large salaries. On the demand side, women's educational attainment is lower than men's and continues to remain low despite major interventions on the part of governments to raise female education levels. Even in countries that have attained parity in education, women's share in highly skilled managerial positions remains low, signalling that education alone does not explain why (a) women do not find good jobs and (b) when they do, they prematurely drop out of the labour force. This seemingly irrational behaviour indicates that there are deeper social, cultural, religious and institutional biases that are curbing women's economic participation.
We find some evidence of each of these social factors in every Asean country and across all high-growth sectors. Institutionalised and legal discrimination against women, stemming from religious beliefs, prevents women in Malaysia from signing contracts and starting businesses.
In Singapore, the Government is concerned about the drop in female participation at the senior professional levels and has launched campaigns to encourage men to help domestically and share parenting responsibility. The problems in Singapore stem from deeply rooted patriarchal beliefs.
In Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, women enjoy no legal restrictions. Women are constitutionally equal to men, they can start a business, take up any job, and marry anyone they please. The reality is far from this utopian dream. In these countries too, women are intensively employed in extremely difficult and low-paying jobs. Agriculture and garments are two of the main export sectors and also sectors where most women are employed. The pay is low, often at barely subsistence level, physical demands from the work are high and exploitation is rampant. To add to this already heaving cauldron of daily drudgery, there is little empathy or action on the part of the governments. Beautifully crafted gender strategic plans lay gathering dust as no funds are allocated for actual implementation.
Indonesia and the Philippines are slightly better off. The strong presence of civil rights groups demanding social equality has ensured that laws and policies are enacted to promote gender equality. This hasn't stopped religious fundamentalism from creeping in and putting the brakes on women's freedoms - economic and social - in certain regions.
What are the demand side factors that explain why there are fewer women than men in the economy and in the export sectors? The AEC, by all accounts, is a major demand side push towards job creation. Incentives have to be created for firms to employ and retain women employees. These incentives can be fiscal, monetary or market-based rewards. This means creating family-friendly workplace policies, alternative career tracks, nursing and childcare support and flexible work policies. While such benefits are difficult to imagine on a factory floor, in white-collar professions that fall under the AEC - electronics, e-Asean and tourism - such incentives will go a long way towards retaining women workers.
To dismiss the issue of women's participation, or lack thereof, as a social issue and outside the purview of the AEC and related trade policy reforms, is shortsighted. The stakes are very high for everyone and the gains are positive. Ultimately the goal of all economic and social policy is to allocate resources and create incentives to improve the welfare of all members of society - men and women.
The writer is a senior research fellow at Stanford University, WSD Handa Centre for Human Rights and International Justice. She consults with the UN Women Regional Office for Asia-Pacific on women's economic empowerment.
S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian issues
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'Welcome to the AEC - women please step aside!'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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