Mind the gender gap

August 03, 2018

Kaliz Lee


Gender inequality does not start in the workplace – many women are born into unsafe environments with inadequate access to health care and technology. In recent years access to education has improved globally but does not always translate to equal economic and political opportunities for women

Women in Asia

This infographic is based on gender parity scores (GPS) set by the McKinsey Global Institute (the report does not include Hong Kong or Macau) and The Global Gender Gap Report 2017 set by the Global Economic Forum. GPS scores are made up of 15 equally weighted indicators of equality in work and society. The scores run from 0 (no gender equality) to 1.0 (parity). A 0.95 ratio, for instance, represents a 5 per cent distance from parity

Iceland ranked highest in the world in terms of gender parity and is seen as something of a role model for the rest of the world. By contrast, the Asia-Pacific region has a GPS of 0.56, slightly worse than the global average of 0.61. Both are considered “high” levels of inequality.


The general trend across the Asia-Pacific region marks a shift towards fairer and more open societies that aim to promote and support women’s rights to improve their quality of life. Regionally, New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore lead the way. China does well on female participation in the workforce, but less well when it comes to promoting women to leadership positions. However, there is still cause for concern in many parts of Asia. Violence against women, human trafficking and low literacy rates are issues many still face on a daily basis.

The proportion of women to men in the labour force varies widely across the Asia-Pacific, from 0.92 in Nepal, to just 0.30 in Pakistan. In New Zealand on the other hand, where the score is 1.25, there are more women than men in the workforce. The general trend for women’s access to the job market is for continued improvement in Asia. Access to the labour force is one thing, but when it comes to promoting women to decision-making roles, the situation is very different, especially in the political arena. In the Asia-Pacific, women are on average 80% less likely than men to be in high-ranking positions of influence.

Top universities typically produce the cream of a nation’s talent and future leaders. As the diagram below shows, women in the Asia-Pacific region are reasonably well-represented in the top five universities of their countries. However, this does not translate into equal representation in management positions after graduation. There are a number of reasons that might factor into this contradiction but those most commonly cited are:

1. Women taking time out of their careers to have children and rear families. Paradoxically, while higher levels of education in urban areas correlates to higher growth per capita, employment is often more regulated and childcare more expensive

2. Inflexible work schedules

3. Working environments that do not support women

Worldwide there are just four women for every 10 men in leadership positions in business and politics. Regionally the rate is even lower, with one woman to every four men – even the developed Asia-Pacific economies usually have low levels of female leadership. The Philippines offers an interesting case. A matriarchal society, the government has been proactive in trying to reduce the gender gap and women are well represented in the workforce and politics. However, women born to lower income families still have few opportunities to climb up the hierarchy and often seek work opportunities overseas.


In the Asia-Pacific region women face many barriers to advance to leadership positions. The failure to normalise flexible work options is thought to directly impact women’s access to these roles and they often quit the workplace after becoming mothers, sometimes out of choice, but often due to social pressure or lack of resources. Social attitudes in some parts of the region are thought to result in some women deserting the workforce even before they become mothers. There are plenty of examples in Asia where tradition prioritises the role of women as housewives.

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“In your opinion, which are the top high-level barriers, if any, to increasing gender diversity within the top management of your organisation?”

Results of a McKinsey survey carried out in Asia, 2015.

Access to digital technology

Digital technology is increasingly available but requires developing new skills to access information, communication and self-expression. Online activity aids women’s empowerment by providing greater control of their own resources and a growing ability to participate in decision-making processes. This in turn brings the opportunity to change, or at least review, traditional norms and beliefs, promoting more gender equality. Digital technologies offer ways to create new customers and business models, and enable individual entrepreneurship, linking micro-global markets, at a low cost, with high flexibility. It is hoped this will help unleash potential opportunities for women to balance home with work


There are now more than 5 billion subscribers using mobile technology worldwide. This situation has the potential to transform lives by providing women with safe working environments and connectivity to health service information, financial data and job opportunities. Mobile technology has been rapidly deployed, but not always in terms of gender equality in low-income countries. Beyond cost, limits to mobile ownership need to be considered from a local context, where access to mobile internet is not seen as an indispensable part of the daily routine.

While affordability could be the main factor limiting women’s access to mobile internet, local context also plays a decisive role. Difficulties in reading/writing, safety and information security, along with the influence of social norms in patriarchal societies, puts mobile technology out of reach for many women.

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