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The future of women in Asean: Three priorities for govts

For the region to remain one of the brightest growth hotspots, the quality of its human capital - especially that of its women - is key.

Women in the Philippines and Vietnam 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, says a report by the International Labour Organization.

ASEAN women have made great progress as an economic contributor over the last 50 years. Despite the cultural and socio-economic diversity across the region, much has been achieved through public legislation and efforts by the private sector and civil society.

Yet, the degree of investment in women across the region remains disparate and there is a collective need to ensure that hard-won gains on achieving gender parity are not lost amid a fast-changing environment.

According to the Projected Gender Impact of the Asean Economic Community report published in 2016 by the Asean secretariat, in order to reap the full benefits of trade expansion and economic integration in the region, trade and non-trade policies and programmes need to avoid bias toward a particular sex or social gender.

Currently, all Asean countries have labour laws that prohibit gender discrimination.

However, in reality, it has been challenging to enforce and ensure compliance with such laws, evidenced by persistent wage gaps and other displays of workplace discrimination.

To that end, governments play an important role in working with corporates to co-own the social and business imperative of ensuring women have equal opportunities.

Depending on the stage of economic development, the emphasis of government policies will differ.

Nonetheless, according to a new EY report Can Asean move forward if women are left behind?, there are three areas that policymakers can focus on to create a more conducive labour market for women to thrive in.


First, governments can seek to mandate the minimum amount of support that women receive at the workplace, particularly in areas such as maternity leave and childcare.

Across Asean, provisions for maternity leave are generally well laid out but further enhancements can be considered. Other than the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam, governments in Asean generally do not pay fully for maternity leave. Singapore and Thailand adopt a hybrid approach whereby the government pays for a portion of the maternity costs.

To motivate corporates to help female employees with more maternity benefits, governments can consider providing partial subsidies to alleviate cost pressures in the form of cash reimbursements or enhanced tax deductions, or directly to employees.

Countries that enjoy high levels of female workforce participation can also consider making provisions for paternity leave to enable men to co-share child-caring at home.

Policies to improve childcare access and quality are just as critical in helping women to join, remain or re-enter the workforce after giving birth.

Asean countries can consider providing subsidised childcare infrastructure to support mothers, which is particularly important in the developing markets where childcare options are limited, and a significant percentage of women may not be formally employed or are agricultural-based.

Another alternative is to provide subsidies or enhanced tax deductions to help companies to offset the costs of running childcare centres at the workplace. For higher-educated women, other forms of tax relief to encourage mothers to remain in the workforce, such as tax deduction on a certain percentage of childcare fees incurred or special tax rebates, will be helpful.


The second area that governments can focus on is to encourage the private sector to invest in capacity-building and leadership opportunities for women through training and skills upgrading.

In Asean, incentives to encourage training are typically across the board, and not many are targeted at the needs of women across their life cycle in the labour force. In the less developed Asean countries, where large populations of women lack basic vocational skillsets that allow them to participate actively in the labour market, governments should advocate training programmes that are specific to women from the unskilled to skilled level.

Working with companies, associations or charities to heavily subsidise training and development of certification programmes could be useful. Governments can also proactively invest in expanding training for females in sectors that are traditionally male-dominated. In addition, local or national women's associations can be brought on board to raise public awareness of the available courses.

As less-educated women typically lack access to technology or resources to afford classroom fees, planners should ensure that promotional campaigns are creative and extend beyond the usual media channels while providing financial assistance to those seeking to enroll.

For the more developed Asean countries that already see a high level of female workforce participation, government initiatives can steer towards enabling women to take on board and leadership positions, as well as push for greater transparency on female advancement in large corporations.

This is important given that in many Asean markets, men continue to be far more likely than women to rise to senior positions in business or politics.


With the rise of disruptive technologies, automation is impacting and eliminating roles in sectors where there is a high rate of employment of women, such as agriculture, garments and textiles (especially in the developing Asean countries), health care, manufacturing, services, retail, and food and beverage.

Based on the report Asean in transformation: How technology is changing jobs and enterprises by the International Labour Organization, women in the Philippines and Vietnam 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.

What this points to is the imperative to ensure that girls and women in Asean have access to quality education and training that are relevant and matched to market demands now and into the future.

Related to this is the growing need to improve women's participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. STEM education is particularly relevant in building future-ready competencies, given the rapid technological shifts, automation and buoyant infrastructure development in many emerging Asean economies.

More female graduates need to be prepared for STEM professions. In OECD countries, an average of 25 per cent of engineering and mathematics graduates are women. In Asean, women have a skewed tendency to study education, health welfare and humanities, with uptake of STEM standing at only 17 per cent.

Policymakers can help to bridge this gender gap in STEM fields by bringing STEM education for women to the forefront of national dialogue, and encouraging awareness, participation and mindset shifts. For example, the US has prioritised STEM education since 2009 through increased funding, with a focus on women via STEM campaigns such as Educate to Innovate.

For Asean to remain as one of the brightest growth hotspots globally, the quality of the region's human capital is key. If we believe that harnessing the full potential of women remains a missed opportunity, then there is more that governments and corporations can do collaboratively. By securing the future of women in Asean, we are necessarily securing the resilience of Asean - its communities and economies.

  • Mildred Tan is managing director of Ernst & Young Advisory Pte Ltd and Dilys Boey, EY Asean People Advisory Services Leader at Ernst & Young Solutions LLP. The views here are the writers' only and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms.