The Cost of Gender Inequality: Building A More Inclusive Economy For Women

Women’s choices have long been restricted long before the term “choice” became increasingly politicised in shaping policy debates.

After its global report in 2015, “The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth”, McKinsey explored the challenge of gender inequality in the Asia Pacific (APAC), one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world.

The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in Asia Pacific” published in 2018, reported that gender inequality is high overall in APAC, with significant variations among countries. It was projected that APAC countries could add $4.5 trillion to their collective annual GDP by 2025, a 12 per cent increase over the business-as-usual trajectory if women’s equality is advanced.

The “Global Gender Gap Report 2020” by the World Economic Forum compared gender gaps across four dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment. Under the Economic Participation and Opportunity sub-index, only 58 per cent of the gap had been closed thus far and the presence of women in the labour market was persistently less than men.

In Malaysia, women’s labour force participation stands at only 55.2 per cent, a figure far from the male rate of 80.4 per cent. Also, gender gaps tend to widen in parallel with seniority level. Globally, only 36 per cent of senior private sector’s managers and public sector’s officials are women.

The presence of women on corporate boards or as top business leaders is even more limited: a woman leads only 18.2 per cent of firms globally. On average, 22.3 per cent of board members in OECD countries are women, with an even lesser representation in emerging economies. Women’s underrepresentation in business leadership positions is a pressing global issue that needs to be addressed.

Several factors lead to this gap. One of the critical factors is the unequal burden of household and care responsibilities that women continue to shoulder. Globally, women still spend multiple-folds as much time as men on these responsibilities.

Even in countries like the United States, women spend almost twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work. The responsibilities shouldered by women is not only due to overall standards of living, as they still spend more than four times that of men even in advanced economies such as Japan.

A negative gender gap relationship between women’s relative amount of time spent on unpaid domestic work, economic participation, and opportunity is consistent across advanced and developing countries.

In Malaysia, the prevalence of conservative attitudes on gender roles continues to promote gender inequality. Almost a decade ago, Kathom et al. wrote:

“Women’s role is oriented more towards family matters rather than self-fulfillment implying that when faced with having to make a choice between career and family, family is always given priority.

“In a way, the present Malay (*in Malaysia) women are caught in a dilemma between the modern challenges of life and traditions. While many are now employed, they are still expected to be responsible for the family and to maintain the traditional perception of a woman.”

Today, motherhood is still made to look as though it is somewhat a disadvantage. Mothers are often overlooked in promotions. For some, child care is unavailable, unaffordable, or inappropriate.

Working hours can be long and unpredictable, in addition to having to pay their share for rising health care and living costs. Studies repeatedly show that women’s earning capacity stalls after having children, and mothers spend considerably more time taking care of children than fathers do.

Very few parents have sufficient financial resources to choose between work and family. When policymakers talk about choices that parents can make, they only target mothers. A man hardly gets asked how he divides his time between work and family.

Women’s choices have long been restricted long before the term “choice” became increasingly politicised in shaping policy debates. In 1981, Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker in his landmark work, “A Treatise on the Family”, argued that home behaves like a free-market, where each family functions like a small factory, with each member making rational choices to maximise value.

Becker explored the economic implications of the most personal decisions, such as choosing a spouse, and allocation of time to child care as well as to careers. On decision-making, many women still feel guilty and even shamed by others, for choosing work and leaving their child in inadequate care.

They deliberately choose to work in scaled-back jobs, giving up on the prospects of advancing their career or in other decisions that they would not have made under different circumstances.

Cultural and social transformations will not happen overnight. Policies with cost- or time-effective solutions to care needs (such as child care within a workplace and flexible working options), or realignment of attitudes and burden of household and care duties (such as longer paid maternity and paternity leave), and initiatives to lead cultural change at both the micro and macro level to address attitudes about women’s role in society can have a substantial impact on women’s career opportunities.

Building inclusive economy ecosystems enable everyone to flourish. When more women work and are given equal opportunities, economies grow.

The shift in societal attitudes toward the role of women is a powerful force that can enable—or hold back—progress of gender inequality. It’s time to stop framing the term “choice” as a woman’s decision to choose between work and family when, in reality, it often feels like there is no choice at all.

June Choon is a lecturer and researcher in Health Economics at the School of Pharmacy, Monash University Malaysia.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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