Transformation of Women at Work in Asia: An Unfinished Development Agenda

Women in Asia: High contribution, little rewards

Women's labour force participation has either fallen or remained stagnant across Asia says the ILO ahead of International Women’s Day. An ILO book reviews the role of women in Asia’s economic transformation and highlights the barriers they face in the region’s labour market.

News | 01 March 2017
BANGKOK (ILO News) - However better educated, in more urbanized sectors, with fewer children, women in Asia still lack access to decent work opportunities. According to the joint ILO-SAGE publication Transformation of women at work in Asia, their participation in the labour force has either fallen or remained stagnant.

On average, female labour force participation declined in East Asia from 70.8 per cent in 1994 to 63.3 per cent in 2014, while it has fallen from 36.4 to 30.6 per cent in South Asia over the same period.

Declining/stagnating female labour force participation rates in Asia
“Findings show that women across the continent have contributed significantly to its spectacular growth story; yet, social norms and economic factors limit their levels of participation,” says Sher Singh Verick, Deputy Director of the ILO country office in India, and co-author of the book.

Overall high disparities between men and women’s participation rates – the gender gap- have narrowed in all developing regions but East and South Asia.

South Asia follows closely Middle East& North Africa in terms of gender gaps in labour force participation
“A range of factors continue to keep female labour force participation rates in Asia down much lower than for men, even in countries which are some of the richest in the world (e.g. Japan and Singapore). Social norms and the lack of alternative job opportunities continue to constrain women from accessing jobs,” says ILO senior economist, Sukti Dasgupta, and co-author of the book.

Beyond labour force participation

Based on a comparative review of the region and countries analysis covering Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, the book shows that higher education levels do not translate into increased access to better jobs for women until women have reached beyond secondary schooling.

“It is important to note that labour force participation is only the tip of the iceberg.” Verick says, while underlining the difference between quantity and quality of employment.

“For instance, in advanced East Asian economies, female labour force participation rates that surpass the global average mask the issue of underemployment of female workers. Similarly, in Cambodia and Viet Nam, high participation is accompanied by women’s overrepresentation in unpaid household activities and concentration in low-skill, low-productivity, and low-pay work,” he says.

The study also reveals that women in Asia remain at a disadvantage in securing employment, and are more often found to be in vulnerable forms of employment such as self-employment and unpaid care work, concentrated in fewer industries and occupations, and have lower wages than their male counterparts.

”Despite advancements, educated women still face socio-cultural and practical constraints, preventing the full use of their skills. Occupational segregation remains a predominant feature of trainings and labour markets, limiting women’s choices and confining them to lower-paid and lower-status jobs than men,” says Sukti Dasgupta.

Towards women’s economic empowerment

The volume calls for a comprehensive approach to improve women’s participation in the labour force. The approach is based on six key policy pillars promoting decent work and entrepreneurship:
  • Create more decent jobs which women can access
  • Improve access to quality education & skills/ entrepreneurship development
  • Reduce women's time burden
  • Improve transport and infrastructure
  • Strengthen legal rights and protection
  • Enhance measurement of women's work
 “Fully capitalizing on the female labour force has tremendous potential to spur growth and development in the region. Moreover, reducing gender barriers to decent work is fundamental to promote women’s economic empowerment,” conclude the authors.

For more information on the survey please contact

Ms Diya Banerjee
Communications Officer
ILO Country Office for India
Tel.: +91 -11-4750-921