Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and one of the world's most influential women, made an interesting remark last weekend.
“We have estimates that, if the number of female workers were to increase to the same level as the number of men, GDP in the United States would expand by 5 per cent, by 9 per cent in Japan, and by 27 per cent in India,” she told the inaugural summit of the Women’s 20 (W-20), a new grouping launched by the G20, in Turkey.
She said that aside from boosting gross domestic product, getting more women into secure and well-paid jobs raises overall per-capita income. For Turkey, it has been estimated that gender parity in employment could increase per-capita income by 22 per cent, and Lagarde expects the same gains in many other countries.
Beyond that, she said it would help reduce income inequality. Citing a forthcoming paper by the IMF, she said that a boost to education and employment opportunities for women was key to closing the income gap. She also believes that female empowerment can reduce poverty, citing a Food and Agriculture Organisation report that giving women the same access to farming resources as men could increase agricultural output in developing countries by up to 4 per cent.
The grouping was launched last week, following a G20 pledge to reduce the gap in women’s workforce participation by 25 per cent by the year 2025. Dubbed the “Promise of 2025”, the goal is to create some 100 million new jobs across the world. The benefits Lagarde foresees are undeniably what the world needs at this time of low economic growth and ageing populations that signal a decline in the number of male workers.
There’s no doubt that women are playing a bigger public role than they did last century. Yet we must also acknowledge that discrimination still exists even in otherwise-liberal, progressive countries like the United States. In America, same-sex partners can get married in any state, yet women have only recently been admitted to the US Army’s elite Ranger School.
Meanwhile the number of women in US Congress rose from 59 in 1995, to 104 during the current 114th session. Yet that still only represents 19 per cent of the House and 20 per cent of the Senate, from a population that is 50.8 per cent female.
In Thailand and other developing countries, the situation is far worse.
According to World Bank figures from 2013, women account for about 51 per cent of the Thai population, up from 50.3 per cent in 1994. Yet, only 64.30 per cent of working-age females in 2013 were either employed or actively looking for work, against 81 per cent of males. That helps explain why women account for only 45.80 per cent of the workforce. (The only sector where females outnumber males is the service industry.)
Notably, the lower ratio of women workers means the proportion of female bosses will remain low for the foreseeable future.
As for Thai politics, more women have been elected, but the ratio remains well below the global average of 22.1 per cent, as reported by the International Parliamentary Union. In Thailand, women took about 16 per cent of the seats after the most recent election, in 2011. Setting aside one-third of parliamentary seats for women was mooted, but that idea – along with the entire draft charter – is now history. The scant number of women MPs means that debate in the House debate rarely extends to female-specific issues like maternity leave and sexual harassment in the workplace.
In neighbouring Myanmar, women are also struggling to play a bigger role. According to the national Election Commission, of the 6,189 candidates registered for the November 8 election, only about 800, or 13 per cent, are female. That is at least an improvement on the 3.4 per cent who registered for the 2010 election.
At the 2012 World Economic Forum in Bangkok, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi noted that families back home often cut short girls’ education so as to focus resources on boys.
That picture also holds true in Thailand.
For Lagarde, moves to empower women should be focused on three stages of life – education, work and having a family. She cited statistics showing that one extra year of primary school boosts a woman’s earning potential by 10 to 20 per cent, while an extra year of secondary school boosts it by 25 per cent.
One factor discouraging women from entering the workforce is discriminative pay: even with the same level of education, females earn on average just three-quarters of what men earn. Meanwhile paid maternity leave is the exception rather than the rule.
There is no doubt that women are capable of contributing more to national and international development and wealth. But for that to happen, barriers to their participation must lowered.