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Asia's progress in closing the gender gap is slow, uneven

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The Philippines and New Zealand are leading the pack in Asia-Pacific on having the best gender equality, but the rest of the region still has some way to go to improving its status.

[SINGAPORE] The Philippines and New Zealand are leading the pack in Asia-Pacific on having the best gender equality, but the rest of the region still has some way to go to improving its status.

India is struggling to improve its rates of female health, despite gains on wage equality and educational attainment, while China's gender gap has flat-lined over the past decade largely due to a decline in the percentage of women joining the workforce, said Samantha Amerasinghe, an economist with Standard Chartered Plc, in a recent report based on earlier findings by the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum.

The Philippines and New Zealand are the only Asia-Pacific countries ranked in the top 10 of the Global Gender Gap Index of 144 countries compiled by the World Economic Forum. Even so, both nations scored lower than they did a decade ago, while Singapore, India and Bangladesh were the only Asian nations to rise in the ranks over that period. 

To be sure, the number of countries included in the report has risen from 115 in 2006. But some Asian declines remain significant all the same, with Sri Lanka down 87 positions, China down 36 positions, Malaysia down 34 and Japan down 32.

As in 2006, Philippines remains nearest to closing the gender gap among Asian countries, with notable gains in economic participation and opportunity and in political empowerment, said Ms Amerasinghe, who is London-based.

The Philippines has also achieved gender parity on two indicators: educational attainment and health and survival. The nation has made gains by moving women into professional and skills-based jobs as well as having more representation of females in positions of power in the government and private sector, said Ms Amerasinghe.

Overall, however, "the results from the 2016 report are disheartening," she added. "The slow rate of progress on the economic opportunity index for women increases the urgency for women to enter higher-growth areas that require science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

In fact, Asia is largely to blame for a global decline in the female participation rate, the percentage of working-age women who are actually part of the workforce. The rate fell between 1990 and 2014 in both India and China according to World Bank estimates, so that Asia as a whole saw a decline in this metric, even though the overall level remains high by international standards.

Progress toward economic equality also remains elusive, Ms Amerasinghe said, noting that it's slowed to the worst level since 2008, after a peak in 2013. In Asia, no country ranks in the top-10 in the economic participation sub-category in 2016, even though both Singapore and Philippines are in the top-20.

At the current rate, women will win global pay equality in 170 years, with the overall economic gender gap to be closed by 2196, according to WEF estimates.

BLOOMBERG