Women helping one another will help Asia to grow

Stacie Berdan and Liesl Riddle note the power of networking and sharing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2012, 3:36am

In the next 50 years, most economic growth worldwide will take place outside the G7 countries. But that's only half the story. Who are the people who will be the driving force for this growth? Many will be women. But, too often, conversations about growth ignore gender issues, despite the fact that women comprise 40 per cent of the global workforce and account for over US$20 trillion in consumer spending worldwide.

The question today is not whether women will continue to contribute to the global economy, but by how much - and where.

Although gender equality has been hailed as smart economics and necessary to realise an organisation's full potential, empowering women has been slow to catch on, especially in certain regions of the world, like Asia. This is particularly striking, given the important role women play in Asian economies in key manufacturing and service sectors, such as textiles, and back-office processing and call centres.

In addition, most microlending institutions aim the vast majority of their lending portfolio towards female borrowers. Female migrants - almost half of the world's migrant population - also contribute substantially to Asian economies by sending remittances home.

Yet, gender inequality is still pervasive in the region. Many women across Asia lack access to basic education, are left out of policy decisions affecting their families, and struggle to advance in their jobs. Women face significant challenges in starting a business and are often left behind as businesses internationalise.

While many of Asia's economies are booming, few women possess a seat at the decision-making table in politics or the economy. Although some women have risen to positions of political leadership in the region and may have served as role models, few have actively promoted women's empowerment and other issues. In terms of the economy, nearly half of the company boards across Asia still lack a single, independent woman director.

Yet the number of women in Asia on the Forbes' list of 100 most powerful women has been rising, from eight in 2010 to 18 this year.

Women understand that balancing work with the traditional female roles of child care and managing the home is a struggle. And they can help guide and support each other to navigate these challenges in the future global economy.

A great example of this mentoring has been taking place at DuPont Japan (25 per cent female), which has had a women's network for the past eight years. The network recently started an initiative designed to help younger women reach higher levels within the company.

Often, success is dependent on access to excellent child care at affordable rates, one of the biggest barriers in a country like Japan. But what about the social expectations in other countries, such as India, which have not kept pace with increased career expectations of women? A study last year found that India has the highest percentage of stressed women, at 87 per cent. Can women help other women in this capacity? Yes, but it's going to take a cultural shift in both women and men.

Women can share stories of how they've used microfinance loans to start businesses and help not only themselves, but to pull their families out of poverty. Women can work together to push for change in increasing education for girls. But it will take time and some extra help.

Cultural shifts can happen. And although they're specific to country and culture, the feminine culture of communication, sharing and advising other women, is a strong indicator that women will help other women all the way to the top. But women will do it in their own way and at their own pace.

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan is an author whose work has appeared in leading newspapers and magazines. Liesl Riddle is an associate professor of international business and international affairs at The George Washington University. This article was first published in Asia Pathways, the blog of the Asian Development Bank Institute