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  • Writer's pictureGabrielle Dark

Have women benefited from structural transformation in the Asia Pacific region?

Women's labour force participation rates in the region have declined

In the last 20 years, women's participation rates in Asia and the Pacific have fallen by more than 5 percentage points, going from 50.4% in 2001 to 44.0% in 2021 (see Table 1). This decline is due to factors such as women’s educational pursuits and an aging population. Despite this recent decline, participation rates in Asia and the Pacific (except South Asia and Central/Western Asia) are still higher than the global average including Latin America. Within Asia and the Pacic, however, South Asia has a particularly low labour market participation rate of 24.1%, mainly due to cultural norms about women's roles. Central and Western Asia also has a comparably low rate at 47.7%, but it has been rising over the past two decades.


There have been modest improvements in gender gaps


In the past 20 years, men's labour force participation has dropped more than women's, leading to a smaller difference in participation rates between the two genders. Globally, from 2001 to 2021, the gap between male and female participation rates closed by 1.9 percentage points. In Asia and the Pacific, this gap narrowed by 1.2 points, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, it decreased by 6.8 points. As of 2021, the difference between men and women's participation rates in Asia and the Pacific is 29.6 percentage points, similar to the global gap of 24.9 points. However, the gap is particularly large in South Asia, nearly 50 percentage points. East Asia and the Pacific have relatively smaller gender gaps, though there are differences among countries. Central and Western Asia also shows a small gender gap, which can be attributed to both men and women having low participation rates in this region.


Table 1. Labour force participation rates by region, 2001 and 2011 (%)

Women have benefited less from structural transformation in the region


The sectoral composition of employment for women is closely tied to a region’s level of development and employment composition. Four aggregate groupings are used to create a broad overview of the sectoral composition of employment: Agriculture, Industry, Market services, and Government, care, and social services. In Asia and the Pacific, more men work in Industry compared to women, while women are more likely to work in Government, care, and social services. This trend is also consistent across various subregions. Nearly 30% of women in the Asia and the Pacific region work in Market services. Similarly, around 30% of women work in Agriculture, however, in the South Asia subregion, this number is over 57%, almost three times higher than in East Asia and over ten times higher than in the Pacific subregion.


Over the past two decades, female employment growth in the region being modestly slower per annum in comparison to men. In fact, the share of women in total employment has shrunk. In 2021, women made up just over 37% of total employment in the region, compared to a little more than 38% in 1991. Underlying the moderately weak job growth among women in the region is the fact that in a number of dynamic sectors, such as High value-added manufacturing (where it prevails), women did not benefit to the same degree as men.


A comprehensive approach is needed to improve employment outcomes for women in the region


Women in the Asia and Pacific region encounter various structural challenges that hinder their full participation in the workforce. One significant issue, not unique to this region, is the disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic responsibilities placed on women, often referred to as the "motherhood employment penalty". Women are often discouraged from entering or returning to work due to a lack of support for their caregiving roles, as well as unequal access to paid work opportunities. While addressing the recognition and fair distribution of unpaid work can be beneficial, there is also value in implementing more direct actions. Currently, most maternity benefits in the region are either contribution-based or provided by employers, with some limited to the public sector. Increasing funding and availability of quality care services for vulnerable groups like children, people with disabilities, and the elderly would lessen the caregiving burden on women.


To foster inclusive growth, concerted efforts are necessary to dismantle barriers hindering various groups of women from accessing non-traditional, higher-paying sectors. Embracing a life course perspective that encourages girls' participation in STEM fields, technical vocational education, and training programs can counteract subject and occupational segregation. Implementing policies aimed at addressing gender discrimination throughout the employment cycle (from recruitment to retention and promotion) and supporting women in balancing their caregiving responsibilities are crucial steps towards achieving greater equity in labour markets in the region.


For more information on this topic, download the full report: Where women work in Asia and the Pacific: Implicaitons for policy, equity and growth


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