Created in 1967, ASEAN member states can today boast about being one of the most dynamic economic regions in the world. With a bulging working population spread unequally across the member nations and a rate of economic growth which remains among the best in the world has today propelled the region into the global spotlight. The rise of the e-commerce sector has garnered international investment from various quarters of the world.. This rise of the internet economy and digital platforms means that a workforce of tomorrow is necessary for countries to leverage such opportunities. A workforce that’ll greatly benefit by providing equal employment opportunities to women.
And regions remains to gain significantly if women’s participation in formal labour is to bring up from its current levels in the region. A recent Mckinsey study shows that all countries in the APAC region would benefit from advancing gender equality. The report noted that “in a best-in-region scenario in which each country matches the rate of progress of the fastest-improving country in its region, the largest absolute GDP opportunity is in China, at $2.6 Tn, a 13 percent increase over business-as-usual GDP. The largest relative GDP opportunity is in India, which could achieve an 18 percent increase over business-as-usual GDP, or $770 Bn.” These numbers point to the part of the economic journey that the region still has to make.
Looking at women’s labor force participation within ASEAN, it shows signs of steady improvement over the past three decades, particularly in rapidly growing economies such as the Philippines and Singapore which today boasts some of the well-integrated labor markets in the region when it comes to offering equal employment opportunities. While in other markets such as Thailand and Laos, female workforce participation as a percentage of the working-age female population has remained largely unchanged or sometimes fallen since 1990. Owing to business and cultural barriers, these countries have found it difficult to maintain a healthy pace of women employment. Today, women in the region, like many previous generations before them that have long played a major economic role, find their role as business owners and entrepreneurs across many sectors, especially at the micro and small enterprise levels.
When it comes to top leadership, matters remain slow to change. Although in recent years, there has been an increase in gender diversity for the C-suites and corporate boards, with the proportion of female directors growing, the overall participation of women in a top leadership position today varies greatly across the various economies. A study done in 2017 showed Malaysia leads ASEAN’s developed markets, with women comprising about 12.5 percent of board members, followed by Indonesia at 11.1 percent and Singapore at 7.7 percent. Although these numbers have improved over the past few years, tangible changes in leadership structures that enable more women to partake in business decision making still remain to be seen.
With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digital transformation poses a threat to fundamentally traditional industries, disrupting jobs and creating new business models and economic opportunities across ASEAN. This has had a profound impact on women employment patterns in the region. An EY study noted that the disruptive technologies of today that have led to rising automation across sectors and job roles, especially those where women have a considerable presence. It has been noted that automation is gradually impacting and eliminating roles in sectors where there is a high rate of employment of women, such as agriculture (especially in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar), garments and textiles (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam), health care manufacturing or services (Brunei and Singapore) as well as in retail, food and beverage manufacturing and services. In the Philippines and Vietnam, women are twice as likely to occupy jobs at high risk of automation as their male counterparts. In Indonesia and Thailand, they are 1.5 times more likely. Technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA), robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will also impact the financial sector, where women hold a higher share of employment as technicians or in roles providing clerical, sales or administrative support. Even with the economic benefit that might accrue to the region, the threat having so many women displaced out of the labour force due to tech-driven transformations would prove a major challenge for the region. To train and skill, such portions of the region's workforce would help meet other talent demands arising within the region.
With more than 40 percent of global employers today reporting talent shortage, education systems are in need of preparing graduates with relevant skills. ASEAN’s skills gap is largely marked by a shortage of technical knowledge and a lack of digital skills which poses a serious threat to the region's economic growth. The relevance of STEM education has risen given rapid technological shifts and the rise of industrial automation with the need to need to have proper infrastructure development emerging in many ASEAN economies. A higher number of female graduates need to be prepared for STEM professions worldwide. In OECD countries, an average of 25 percent of engineering and mathematics graduates are women. In ASEAN, studies note women have a skewed tendency to study education, health welfare, and humanities, with STEM uptake at only 17 percent
Throughout ASEAN, there is an increasing realization of the fact that, to achieve sustained economic growth, gender parity and investing in women are key. Doing so can contribute significantly toward building a quality workforce of greater capacity workforce to drive the much needed economic growth. While ASEAN has advanced by leaps and bounds in terms of increasing the opportunities for women in the last 50 years, the degree of investment in women across the region remains disparate. By channeling such investments into relevant education and skill building and enabling both private and public players to support women employees through this period of rapid change would be ASEAN’s challenge when it comes to leveraging the ‘gender dividend’ of the region.