Gender equality in high-income Asian countries remains a work in progress
Paul Yip says the road is long for gender equality in Asia, as shown by the scandal of Tokyo Medical University rigging its entrance exam against women. Policymakers, the media and women’s rights groups have much work to do
The recent revelation of a prestigious Japanese medical school systematically rigging its entrance exam against women has highlighted the deep-rooted problem of gender inequality, especially in this part of the world. Tokyo Medical University admitted adjusting female applicants’ scores in an effort to produce more male doctors; for one thing, it felt women were more likely to quit the profession after having children.
It is unfortunate that Japanese women have been denied equal opportunities to pursue their interests. At the same time, the Japanese community has been deprived of the chance to be served by fine female doctors. What a waste of human resources; what a lose-lose situation.
In fact, women students outnumber men in many universities worldwide. Yet, women are still under-represented in executive roles. There are only 23 women heading Fortune 500 companies. Apparently, there is a glass ceiling women can’t break, even though research has shown that companies with more gender-balanced boardrooms tend to produce better financial results.
Also, in Hong Kong, as with other high-income Asian economies, the labour-force participation rate for women – about 50 per cent – is lower than in high-income Western countries, where it is 70 to 80 per cent. Raising the workforce participation rate would require more effort from the whole of society, though. For example, family-friendly policies, including affordable childcare and flexible working, would be needed to support working mothers.
The United Nations Development Programme has created a gender inequality index that measures reproductive health, empowerment (through higher education and parliamentary representation) and labour participation. On the index, Denmark comes second out of 159 countries. Coincidentally, it has never dropped out of the top three of the world’s happiest countries.
It also has relatively high fertility and female labour-force participation rates (higher than Hong Kong’s). In a more gender-balanced society like Denmark, women seem to have a better chance of starting families without compromising too much on career aspirations.
Having said that, gender-equality policies are highly context-dependent. Countries with different cultural and religious environments, and in different development stages, have different priorities and policies have to be adjusted accordingly.
In developing countries, policies related to food access, education rights and health care – the basic stuff – would be more pressing issues. But in developed countries, policymakers would be able to promote equal opportunities in employment – including the number of women in decision-making roles – and to check the feminisation of poverty.
Furthermore, there should be laws to protect women against violence and to support victims of violence, as well as legislation to improve pregnancy protection and parental-leave policies.
A gender equality action plan should also involve the education sector. It is important to design a gender-sensitive curriculum. The media, women’s rights groups and civil groups could also get involved in launching campaigns to raise public awareness of gender equality.
Although cultural bias cannot be reshaped overnight, new concepts and norms can diffuse into society and gradually gain acceptance through legislation, education and media campaigns. Lastly, gender equality policies should be regularly reviewed and scrutinised so their inadequacies can be addressed in a timely manner.
Gender inequality takes many forms and dimensions. Inequality that affects health care and objective social status could probably be eliminated through a general improvement in economic conditions. Culturally embedded discrimination in a prosperous country like Japan is a different story, however.
Nevertheless, for the community as a whole, promoting the well-being of women also promotes social harmony. Men might take a bit of time to get used to the changes, though.
Paul Yip is chair professor in the Department of Social work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong