Tackling the toxic norms that hold women back in Asia

Women 2018 UN

UNHCR/V. Tan UNHCR staff speak with refugees from Myanmar in a shelter for women and children in Songkhla, southern Thailand.

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Chief Executive Officer, Plan International

Asia is an economic success story. It has made dramatic strides in reducing poverty, increasing wellbeing and lifting future prospects for millions of people.

But history stands still for no nation or region. There will always be more work to do to ensure that development gains, even the most impressive ones, will be sustained not just for this generation but for the next.

Right now, Asia’s girls are missing out. In a region where girls often outperform boys at school, are more educated than ever before, and make up the majority of students in tertiary education in some countries, their ability to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution is still being restricted. This is because the people currently creating the systems of education, production and governance that drive it are predominantly men. Inevitably these “new” systems are likely to resemble the old and risk widening the gender gap further, hindering women and girls’ access to, use of and ability to benefit from technology.

Worldwide, the proportion of women using the internet is 12% fewer than men, which increases to 32.9% in less developed countries. This gap is symbolic of a larger problem of the digital exclusion of women and girls, which we must address before it is too late.

Complex challenges

It is well recognised that Asia faces serious challenges as it looks to the future. The region will face big demographic shifts, including both aging and youth bulges, alongside the disruptive forces of artificial intelligence and automation that are transforming the workforce and employment opportunities.

A new report by Solutions for Youth Employment highlights that this digital transformation is having a profound and specific impact on young people. It is altering the way they learn, their access to opportunities and their job security and could drive further inequality. In these fast-changing times, a failure to invest in the potential of girls will make these challenges yet harder to address.

The current gender gap in ICT starts in early youth, continues through the formative years and enters the workplace, where it hinders not just women but the future economic prospects of everyone. It is the product of harmful gender norms and stereotypes that result in a multitude of setbacks for girls, including unequal access to quality education and training, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths. It is also a result of our collective failure to keep girls and young women safe from threats like early marriage, exploitation – including online threats – and sexual violence.

In the growth and high-value sectors in Asia, such as technology and digital, women are woefully under-represented, and far less likely to reach senior positions. Just a third of all management positions are held by women in ASEAN. Women in Asia are also expected to undertake 4.1 times the amount of unpaid labour and care work as men, according to the ILO. The global cost of unpaid care work undertaken by women is a staggering $10 trillion.

Skilling up women to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Accenture predicts we could reach gender equality in the workplace by 2040 in developed countries and by 2060 in developing countries if we up the pace at which women become digitally fluent. But the sad truth is that girls are five times less likely to consider a career in technology or ICT.

If Asia hopes to benefit from the big opportunity of digital equality, we need to do more than just talk about getting girls involved in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We must change track to give girls the tools, skills and opportunities they need to succeed in and – critically – drive a digital future.

We need to start by empowering women and girls as creators and leaders of this future. We need to ensure they can create the technologies that help us avoid the replication of old gender stereotypes and inequalities in the digital space. By opening up more opportunities and more flexible ways of working, and building safe infrastructure, we can give girls the opportunity to learn the skills they need to become the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs. But none of this will be possible until we tackle the specific gendered discriminations, exploitations and dangers they face every day.

Disrupting the status quo

When jobs are scarce, how can it be right for people to believe that men have more of a right to a job than women? It’s toxic norms like these that prevent girls taking part as equals in societies that need to be broken down. And we need to make sure the laws, policies and infrastructure are in place to ensure girls can access training, financial resources and jobs in safety, without fear of violence, harassment and discrimination. And we need to challenge the perception that technology is not for women or girls, and encourage more of them to study these subjects beyond secondary education.

We must all play our part

Our role now is to step up and support young womens’ careers. By upskilling girls to become more digitally fluent, we can help them take their place as leaders in the growth sectors of the future. By acting as mentors, we can support help give them a voice at the table and open up more spaces for women within our management structures.

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