How to narrow the gender gap has become something of a hot topic in recent years, and the situation in East Asia is no different. According to the United Nations, $89 billion a year is lost in the Asia-Pacific region because women are not fully integrated into the workforce.
Many discussions and policy initiatives focus on how to create a workplace environment suited to women’s needs. These include quantitative goals, such as Japan’s plan to increase the number of women in leadership positions to 30% by 2020, more – or better – childcare facilities, and improved maternity and paternity leave.
I do not disagree with these policies, because a lack of pro-family public policies and support services are ranked among the top five barriers to female empowerment in Asia, and they do help those women who want to work to have a career. The brighter spot I see, however, is the potential for women to be “rule breakers” and move their countries onto a new and more inclusive path to growth.
It is because women, who are at a disadvantage in many Asian countries, have little to lose and much to gain. They should now consider themselves to have an advantage, if they are willing to experiment, create prototypes, consult and ask for suggestions. This is the approach we need today, instead of pushing for “perfect” business models using traditional strategies.
First, East Asia offers one of the best growth markets for companies. However, the pattern of growth in Asian markets will be different from in the past, with more new technologies available, which will affect consumer behaviour. Many new managerial positions will become available and a greater need for people with fresh ideas will emerge.
Second, even the growth rates of star economies in Asia, such as India and China, have slowed, suggesting they need to renew their business models, making them completely different from the traditional formula for success. And as we know, completely new ideas rarely come from the incumbents.
This need for people with fresh ideas should lead companies and educational institutions to design courses for women to learn new skills. In many countries in Asia, women are at a disadvantage when it comes to educational opportunities. A new approach that connects education, skills development and jobs will not only allow women to gain access to education and the workplace, but also give them the chance to advance rapidly up the employment ladder.
And what about collaboration in the region? There are differences among Asian countries, and we cannot tar the region with one big brush. For example, the ratio of female workers is relatively high in Singapore (43.6%), Japan (42.3%) and South Korea (41.6%), but relatively low in Malaysia (36.1%) and the Philippines (39.2%). Meanwhile, the ratio of female managers in the Philippines is 53%, 25% in Malaysia, 11.1% in Japan and 9.4% in South Korea. Female political representation also varies between these nations.
Because of these differences, we can learn from each other, share our stories and offer each other support. We can encourage competition and collaboration among Asian countries. The old mindset of appreciating both the differences and harmonies in Asia will fit this approach well.
There are also cultural barriers which need to be overcome. Expectations about the role of women in society still persist in many areas of Asia, and they are deeply ingrained. This will not change quickly.
However, changes we have seen in the past five years, particularly among young people, indicate that in our hyperconnected world and in the era of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, a new mindset is developing.
Finally, women are more likely to successfully develop their ideas if they collaborate. They can combine their strengths and draw on the potential of collective intelligence. It is time for us to look beyond our national boundaries to empower women by encouraging them to become trailblazers and rule breakers.
Author: Yoko Ishikura is Professor Emeritus, Hitotsubashi University, Japan, and a Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Education and Skills
Image: A Vietnamese woman works at her desk in a call centre. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Ha