Unlocking Possibilities: Can ASEAN move forward if women are left behind?

In South Eastern countries, the men have traditionally been breadwinners while the women’s role has been to care for the family and household. In the last few decades however, the question “What is a gender role?” has become harder to answer as the line between work and family overlaps.

Back in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed as a regional intergovernmental organisation comprised of ten Southeast Asian countries promoting Pan-Asianism and intergovernmental cooperation. It facilitates economic, political, security, military, educational and socio-cultural integration amongst its members and other Asian countries, and globally. Since then, women have made great strides in their contribution to the growth and prosperity of the ASEAN nations. Despite the diversity in cultures and varying levels of socio-economic development across the region, much has been achieved through public legislation and efforts by the private sector and civil society.

There is a collective need to ensure that these hard-won gains are not lost as the region’s economies develop amid emerging forces of disruption. Governments and corporations in ASEAN can further accelerate the advancement of women through policies that deliver better benefits and incentives for working women and provide training for those entering the workforce.

Here we hear from EY who asks some very critical questions ...

Is going back to school the key to accelerating women’s progress?

Education for women in ASEAN has made great improvements, with the gender gap narrowing across most educational levels and girls attaining higher levels of overall enrollment. However, there is still much to be done to ensure that women and girls reach their full potential in ASEAN, with progress to be made in the access to and quality of education, and its relevance to market needs.

As digital becomes more embedded across industries, a higher number of female graduates need to be prepared for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) professions, given the rapid technological shifts and rise of industry automation, alongside the emphasis on infrastructure development in many emerging ASEAN economies.

Even in the region’s most developed economies, access to education can be unequal. In Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia, girls have lower expectations of securing a career in STEM from a young age, likely contributing to the fact that women across the region are underrepresented in sectors such as engineering.

Teaching quality also plays a role in educational outcomes. Students with a poor teacher master 50% or less of their curriculum, while students with an excellent teacher can advance up to 1.5 grade levels.

What is the role of government in propelling women forward?

While ASEAN has advanced in increasing the workforce opportunities for women in the last 50 years, the degree of investment in women across the region remains disparate. Governments can focus on the following areas to create a conducive labor market:

  • mandating the minimum amount of support for women in the workforce, particularly in areas such as maternity leave and childcare benefits
  • encouraging the private sector to invest in capacity building for women through training

For the less developed countries, supporting women’s participation in the workforce is key. This includes incentivizing companies to provide the necessary vocational training, regulatory enforcement on fair hiring practices and basic access to childcare facilities.

For countries with a high level of female workforce participation, encouragement needs to be more collaborative, with more awareness on the longer-term tangible and intangible benefits for the employer. These initiatives can focus on greater transparency and guidance for women on board participation and leadership positions.

Are women the key to accelerating economic progress in ASEAN?

Women in ASEAN continue to be overlooked as a source of talent and they face multiple challenges, from access to employment and leadership positions, wage parity to balancing work and family responsibilities.

To accelerate gender parity in the workplace, we need purposeful action by both men and women to recruit, retain and advance women in the workplace.

For example, the female leadership barrier needs to be addressed by creating a pipeline of women board members and leaders, and focusing on presenting opportunities rather than placing women in key positions as a band-aid solution.

Also, there can be a greater push for workplace flexibility for both women and men embedded within organizational cultures in Asia. Men’s reluctance to fully utilize paternity leave benefit may have an unintended impact, as it reinforces the outmoded view of childcare being mainly a woman’s responsibility.

EY flexible working - career returner

As well, with artificial intelligence and automation on the rise, organizations are now challenged to put individuals at the core of their businesses. A digital workforce requires better connection for collaboration locally and globally - opportunities for women to lead the change in embracing the more human side of work.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution but recognizing the imperative to accelerate gender parity, coupled with the willingness to lead change, will lay the foundation.

By securing the future of women in ASEAN, we are necessarily securing the resilience of the ASEAN communities and economies.

Access the full informative report here.

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