Friday, June 4, 2010

Women: There’s No Progress Without Them

I’m late in commenting on this article – it’s been sitting tagged in my Google Reader for over a week now, but I’ve only just gotten round to posting on it (excerpts, emphasis added):

Women in workforce augur well for the economy

KUALA LUMPUR: The 2010 Asia-Pacific Human Development Report (AHDR) estimates that if women's employment rates were raised to 70%, countries like Malaysia, India and Indonesia would enjoy an increase in GDP between two and four per cent.

Such employment rate of women are only seen in the developed nations and the lack of women's participation in the workforce across Asia-Pacific costs the region an estimated US$89 billion every year...

Countries in the region that have done the most to tap women's talents and capacities have traveled farthest on many aspect of human development. Countries that tolerate deep inequalities fall short of equal citizenship and face social instability and economic loss...

Despite laws guaranteeing equal pay for work, the pay gap between men and women in Asia Pacific ranges between 54 per cent and 90 per cent.

In terms of economic power, a total of 67 per cent of East Asian women participate in the labour force, above the global average of 53 per cent, but South Asian women fall far behind, at only 36 per cent.

A majority of women in the region also, up to 85 per cent in South Asia, are in 'vulnerable' employment, such in the informal economy or low-end self-employment, far above the global average of 53 per cent.

More than 65 per cent of female employment in South Asia and more that 40 per cent in East Asia is in agriculture.

Yet, women in the Asia Pacific region head only seven per cent of farms, compared to 20 per cent in most other regions of the world.

Globally, Asia has the largest number of micro credit borrowers and highest percentage of poor women borrowers.

In Asia 98 per cent of micro credit borrowers in 2006 were women, compared with 66 per cent in Africa and 62 per cent in Latin America.

Meanwhile, the flow of women into business in Asia-Pacific is steady, up to 35 per cent of small or medium enterprises in the region are headed by women.

I’ve pointed out more than once that the female labour force participation rate in Malaysia is remarkably poor (here and here for instance). Note the last sentence I blocked out above – the global average is 53% and the East Asian average is 67%. Malaysia stands at just about 47%, worse than the global average and way below the regional norm. Wonder why Malaysia isn’t a high income economy and hasn’t been able to keep up with the Tiger economies? You’ve just found one big reason.

To be fair, this is largely a generational thing as the participation rate for females in the 25-34 age group is already very close to the East Asian average at 65%. The real big gap is in the older cohorts, with participation rates falling to under a quarter for females aged over 55 (compared to 60% for men). So this isn’t something that can be easily remedied through exhorting women to enter the work force – there’s a skill and experience gap that is probably to big to overcome.

On the flip side, we can look forward in 10-20 years to a much greater contribution from working Malaysian women towards economic growth and development in the future, as the population turns over and we get better average participation rates. That and the bulge of youngsters entering the work force in the next couple of decades is why I think demographic transition will be the main driver in transforming Malaysia into a high income economy - not new development models, or government incentives and subsidies, or lack thereof.


  1. As you have neatly pointed out, 'antediluvian patriarchal attitudes' won't get us anywhere.

    There is however another trend. I understand more women than men enter and graduate from our public universities, something in the ratio of three to two, but their enrolment in the sciences and technical courses account for less forty percent likewise in their uptake of postgraduate studies.

    Thus even if more women join the workforce in the critical years to come, the country will still not have enough technically trained management personnel to run high-income innovation enterprises. And that shortfall is going to grow with the gender trend.

    Women will probably continue to be more ensconced in the services support sector - unless they can pick up special skills, say in computer-aided design of products, even with an arts or social science background.

    If we look at the background of highly paid computer consultants or bank analysts in the west especially those covering technical sectors, some have backgrounds as diverse as history, political science and even botany. And they cover sectors like telecoms and software. So it must be a matter of post-degree training or in-house orientation, something which our organizations may want to make more rigorous as integral to any national manpower strategy aligned to the NEM.

    And then there's the factor of family callings. Working mothers bringing their children to company-sponsored creches may not work long-term; one can't possibly keep a child from nine to five in a room, even if there are other children around; in any case, creches would only be available for companies with big office lots, unless smaller companies agree to combine resources, demarcate a common area and exercise clear management standards.

    Perhaps the government should seriously revisit expanding the source countries for maids and see that they be filtered properly before putting them to look after children and even old folks at home.

    Leaving it to agencies to establish norms and criteria is like the other problem of opening up the health-care sector until there is now so much data noise on alternative self-medication that the market is just inundated with brochure-ware claims and people can get over-supplemented, itself a health concern, especially for women who also have a role to play in nurturing good health habits in their family.

    It remains to come back to the situation before us - we certainly need more technical manpower, and unless more women can gravitate towards technical studies which may involve hard and tough field-work, the situation is not going to improve given their increasing share of the graduate output.

    In retrospect, if the politicians had not monkeyed around with their education policies, we would now be a nation probably unsurpassed in Asia for our command of the english and other foreign languages as the passports to the knowledge we need in order to innovate both hard as well as soft developments that build high-income economies.

    As a matter to note, we may proclaim we have a high literacy rate but we cannot proclaim we are a reading society and that itself causes us not to have a global publications market which in turn reinforces our lack of transparency. One miscue leads to another but they all stack up to us continuing not to be a learned, progressive and open-minded society thriving on knowledge, ideas and long-term visioning.

    Exactly the factors needed to create a more cosmopolitan employment environment in which our present women manpower would have easily been able to shine the most.

    This post, for Mrs Hisham.





    The Elderly

    University Admissions

  2. I don't care who they choose to employ as long as it's the best man for the job!! Lol!!

    Without any back-up stats, I will boldly opine that this idea that GDP will increase if we employ more women is the kind of cockamanie politically gender-correct view that in practice will and cannot not be proven either way.

    It's best to leave people to decide what they want to study and gradiate in, and for employers to decide who they want to employ with the proviso that there be no salary differentials between the sexes. Productivity and performance should decide remuneration, perks, bonus and promotions.

    I hate all this 'social engineering' which in 99.99% of cases is decided at the whims and fancies of 1 man (or fewer women - ha! ha!) and when things go wrong as with LKY and S'pore, they will blame it on the PEOPLE!

    we are all of 1 race, the HUman race

  3. walla, you make some great comments that have given me food for thought. I do believe however that it's on the services sector that we really should focus on anyway, and that's where mobilising the female side of the population can bring the greatest impact.

    ...and thanks for the links!

    don, I think you misunderstand me. I don't disagree with any of your points, even the first. But what I've been trying to point out is not the competition between the sexes for jobs, but the shortfall of women who are in the workforce at all. I'm not making a productivity or gender politics argument here.

    It's brute force mathematics - household income is generated by the workforce. Less numbers of people working (of whatever sex) equals less income. And the number of Malaysian women who are formally employed is far short of where it should be i.e. we're not having enough bodies working relative to the size of the population of working age.

    Here's a conjecture for you (no stats to back me up here either): Most Chinese families I know are two-income households. Most middle-class Malay families are also two-income households. Many low-income Malay (and Indian) families are single-income households.

    How much of the differential between middle-income and low-income households, and the income differential between the different communities, is due to the fact that the women in those households are not working (or working in the "black" economy)? And how much of that circumstance is due to the cultural attitudes towards women working?

    The national accounts calculation includes the value of services in kind - even the contribution of housewives is estimated. But the "income" generated here is non-monetary, and doesn't circulate in the economy - there are no "multiplier" effects. I think that's a strong enough basis to push for greater female labour participation, and accomodating whatever needs to be done to accomplish it. I'm not arguing for gender specific affirmative action - that's no more efficient than race-based affirmative action - just for maximising all of our human capital resources, which we are not doing right now.