[SCMP Column] Empowerment of women needs to start with basics

February 11, 2015

As I sit through those hundreds of hours of meetings of the Apec Business Advisory Council (Abac), I often feel in deepest awe of the energy and focus of the growing number of members championing more equal treatment of women.

The fact that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has joined the chorus, calling for improved female participation in the workforce under his economic revival strategy says, it all: if male-dominated Japanese companies are at last getting serious, then our champions for women’s rights are making progress.

The economic case for empowering women, and bringing them more effectively into our workforces, is overpowering. As Asia’s societies rapidly age, as birth rates drop, and as workforces shrink, it is becoming increasingly critical to raise female labour force participation rates. Studies say that raising women’s labour participation rates to male levels would raise GDP in Germany by 4 per cent, in China and the United States by 5 per cent, in Japan and Brazil by 9 per cent, and in India by 27 per cent. The International Labour Organisation says 865 million women worldwide are barred from contributing fully to their national economies.

As our women’s champions in Abac plan an intense programme of activity in 2015 (culminating in a women’s summit in Manila in September), I worry that priorities are pushing in the wrong direction. It seems the huge majority of effort is being focused on the “glass ceiling” challenges facing the many brilliant women executives populating the middle ranks of the region’s multinationals. At the risk of being politically incorrect, my sense is that the most urgent challenges faced by women are buried deeper in our societies, and start with basic issues like birth control, illiteracy, child-care, and access to basic education. Of the 960 million people worldwide who are illiterate, two thirds are women.

The women’s battle started just over six decades ago – as we are well reminded by a fascinating new book by US journalist Jonathan Eig, The Birth of the Pill – with control over when and whether they got pregnant. So the controversial development of contraceptive pills, which first became available in 1957, was of historic importance. Until then, female participation in the formal labour force was virtually unthinkable, and women faced huge health challenges linked with uncontrolled and potentially continuous pregnancy.

Routinely in Asia and in many parts of the developing world, girls are still today denied access to good education, are forced to marry and begin bearing children as young teenagers, and exist in the workforce – if at all – as an underclass.

Even in a society like Hong Kong, we are not immune. Girls are under strong family pressure to marry and carry most of the burden of home-care and child-rearing. Without extensive access to cheap home help courtesy of the vast army of Filipino and Indonesian girls who are unable to find any means of earning a living in their own countries, we too would be much less well able to keep significant numbers of women in our workforce.

Recent debate inside Abac has made it clear to me that a further, critically important barrier to women’s full participation in the workforce is our failure to recognise the wide range of uniquely female health challenges and illnesses. Some of these unique challenges are sexual (breast cancer, cervical cancer and so on), some are hormonal (like thyroid complaints, where women are up to eight times more likely to suffer than men, and lupus, the auto-immune illness that strikes women 10 times more often than men). Some are linked with the simple medical threats linked with childbirth. Some, more tragically, are linked with what the World Bank calls “intimate partner violence” which leads to injuries, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, depression and other serious mental disorders.

The World Bank says “intimate partner violence” alone costs Colombia 4 per cent of its GDP, and Brazil 12 per cent of its health budget.

In 2015, Abac will be focusing keenly and specifically on the health challenges faced by women. Hong Kong may not suffer as seriously as economies like Colombia or Brazil, but these are problems we cannot ignore. Glass ceilings restraining the careers of brilliant, well-educated professional women may be embarrassing and unacceptable, but if we are to get to the heart of the challenges facing women, then the most important challenges sit at less glamorous levels.

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