30 April 2015 | Brief

Women in the Workforce: An Unmet Potential in Asia and the Pacific


The Women In The Workforce: An Unmet Potential In Asia And The Pacific report from the Asian Development Bank looks into the complex and varied causes behind the gap in economic empowerment between males and females across Asia and the Pacific, then analyses the available evidence for its implications to economic growth.

Enormous advances have been made in closing the education and health gap between females and males in Asia and the Pacific. Nonetheless, the average labour force participation rate of women around the globe has remained stubbornly constant over the last 25 years at just over 50% of the economically active female population. There has been some progress but still, women face a labour market that offers them lower wages and lower quality jobs than their male counterparts.

This report shows that the low labour force participation of women is intimately related to how they allocate time between market and nonmarket activities. Indeed, in deciding whether to work outside of home, women of whatever education or socioeconomic status tend to put more weight on the need to care for their children and dependents. This choice is reinforced by social norms that emphasise domestic tasks as a woman’s primary responsibility and, in some countries, also constrain women’s social activities and mobility. In some places in Asia and the Pacific, these norms severely limit the possibility for women to achieve wage or income growth or to engage in productive entrepreneurial activities, or both.



  • Introduction and Global Overview
    • Trends in Female Labour Force Participation: How Asia Fares Globally
    • The Gap in Male-Female Work Opportunities: How it Relates to Economic Development
  • State of Asia’s Female Labour Force Participation and Economic Growth
    • Determinants of Women’s Labour Force Participation
    • Closing the education and health gap between women and men
      • Women allocate their time differently from men
      • The complex multidimensional issue of getting more women into the labour market
    • The Rise of Gender Wage Gaps: Female-Dominated Jobs and Sectors
    • Tend to Command Lower Wages
    • Major Factors That Discourage Women from Becoming Entrepreneurs
      • Women still outnumbered by men in business and entrepreneurship
      • Women’s investment is limited by less access to land, credit, and technology
    • Causes of the Perpetuation of Women’s Low Productivity
  • The Performance of Selected Asian Countries in Women’s Economic Empowerment
  • Major Policy Options and Initiatives to Increase FLFP and Promote Its Growth
    • Competition through Greater International Trade and Openness
    • Skills and Vocational Training
    • Employment Quotas for Women 27
    • Information on Available Employment Resources and Job Matching
    • Mobility, Security, and Other Female-Specific Concerns
    • Parental Leave, Child Care, and Flexible Work Arrangement Options
  • Appendix 1. Performance by Income Group and Placement in the Gender Gap Index
  • Appendix 2. Individual Country Results by Global Ranking According to the Gender Gap Index


  • Women in Asia are on average 70% less likely than men to be in the labour force, with the country-to-country percentage varying anywhere from 3% to 80%. This gap persists despite economic growth, decreasing fertility rates, and increasing education.
  • In the 2014 Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum, there is a very pronounced disparity between Asia and the other regions of the world. Asia has some of the highest as well as some of the lowest-ranked countries in the index, which measures the share of women with the same level of access to men on the economic, education enrolment, health and survival, and political empowerment fronts. In particular, the Philippines ranks 9th globally while Pakistan ranks 141st among 142 countries.
  • Quantitative research demonstrates that increasing the presence of women in the workforce can have significant benefits for economic growth and welfare, but neither economic growth nor increasing education appears sufficient to pull women into the labour force.
  • Women face a labour market that offers them lower wages and lower quality jobs than those for their male counterparts, a disparity largely influenced by how women allocate their time between market and nonmarket activities.
  • Results of a new simulation model suggest that closing the gender gap could generate a 30% increase in the per capita income of a hypothetical average Asian economy in one generation.
  • Surveys suggest that, relative to men, women are often perceived to have lower skills for the labour market.
  • In some countries, social norms that emphasise domestic work as the primary responsibility of women constitute a significant constraint to their social activities and mobility.
  • To improve female economic empowerment in Asia and the Pacific, policies in a particular country should focus on the specific reasons behind the gap in labour force participation between males and females.
  • To attract more female talent to the labour force, policies should promote a more flexible and family-friendly workplace that allows equitable and efficient distribution of time among household members.
  • In some countries in Asia, measures should be instituted to
    • (i) increase the security and protection of female workers,
    • (ii) provide them appropriate transportation alternatives to the workplace, and
    • (iii) give greater focus on improving women’s productivity in countries where lack of access to property and credit are key constraints and where the female labour force participation rate is very low.
  • To encourage more women to seek and demand better workplace opportunities, policies such as those that explicitly promote skills-training for them should be instituted. This will ensure that more women are seen and heard in traditionally male-dominated jobs.

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