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Experts: Closing Asia Pay Gap Requires Cultural, Global Shifts

FILE - An older Vietnamese woman begs for money on a busy Hanoi street.
FILE - An older Vietnamese woman begs for money on a busy Hanoi street.

Across Asia, women’s incomes trail those of men. Experts say bridging that gap requires reversing trends created by globalization, making it easier for couples to share parenting responsibilities, and providing better workplace training for women.

In Cambodia a woman earns $76 for every $100 that a man earns doing the same work, according to Asian Development Bank (ADB) figures published March 6. In Laos and Vietnam, the figure for women is $85 and $89, respectively.

Economists say the gender pay gap is a result of both direct and indirect discrimination. The first case is more obvious, with bosses, coworkers, and even customers having lower expectations for women, said Sang Hyop Lee, an adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Center.

But other causes are more subtle. Employers, sometimes subconsciously, might view pregnancy as a negative factor when considering whether to hire or promote female staff. When women take time off to have children, the risk is not just of lost productivity for the company, but also that women will fall behind on the career ladder.

Parental leave -- for fathers

Few countries have solved this quandary as effectively as Sweden, which offers generous parental leave -- for fathers. Mothers get a lot of paid time off, too, but the rationale is that if men also take a break for child-rearing, companies will treat both parents more equally.

In Asia, domestic burdens are heavier for women because of cultural traditions like Confucianism, which calls for wives to obey their husbands. What’s more, three-generation homes are more common in the region and they’re typically maintained by the mothers.

“They have to take care of the family,” said Véronique Salze-Lozac’h, the Asia Foundation’s chief economist in Bangkok. “They also have to take care of the elderly.”

But those cultural traditions come at a price: because not enough women participate in the workforce, the region is losing $89 billion a year, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation said, citing U.N. data.

Benefits for temporary workers

Salze-Lozac’h said women, who dominate low-productivity sectors like manufacturing, are especially vulnerable to the growing divide between the rich and poor.

Lee believes globalization exacerbates this inequality. As corporations move around the world to lower costs, wages have gone down and part-time work has gone up. Women are more likely to do these unstable, lower-paid jobs because family duties make it harder to take permanent jobs.

At the same time, labor migration is increasing among Asian women, who spend more of their income home to families than do men, ADB said.

“Globalization happened in these East Asian countries very rapidly,” said Lee, who also teaches economics at the University of Hawaii.

He added that the Netherlands responded to a similar imbalance by preventing companies from paying lower wages to temporary or part-time workers compared with full-timers. Dutch workers also have a right to benefits, regardless of their status.

Equal pay for equal work

Education rates have increased for Asian women, in some countries exceeding those of men, but ADB said on its website this “has not improved their participation in the labor force.” Salze-Lozac’h said women need more training; at the moment, they’re not as likely to enter higher-paid professions like engineering or finance.

But even when they work the same jobs as men, women earn less. Salze-Lozac’h said the Asia Foundation is trying to change that by hosting programs that help women network and learn to negotiate. Increasing confidence should allow women to negotiate not just higher salaries, but also better terms during business deals, such as bank loans.

“That’s one, not too difficult solution,” Salze-Lozac’h said.