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OP-ED: Do women hold up half the sky in Asia?

  • Published at 01:59 am March 10th, 2021
china
China still lacks women in the higher echelons of power REUTERS

The position of women in Asia will be determined by what happens in China, like much else

Europe has a less than glorious history when it comes to women. Let’s take the French Revolution. Many know about the path-breaking Declarations of the Rights of Man in 1791. Less know about Olympe de Gouges and her riposte, the Declarations of Woman, published the same decade. She lost her head on the guillotine. Women in France only won the right to vote in 1944. This despite the fact that the French Revolution of 1789 (like the first Russian Revolution of February 1917) was kick-started by women protestors. 

Women were the catalyst. Men took over the reins of power. Feminists are still battling in Europe for parity today, despite centuries of colonization and industrialization. In a presentation to the LSE, an American economist said child care was still the number one priority for women everywhere (and ignored). She added the economics profession was one of the worst in terms of positions for women. 

Women in industry

Western elites rejoiced when Communist China decided in 1978 it would re-join the global market. Workers in the West, men and women, were dumped mercilessly. Equality in Europe, whether gender or income, went by the wayside. When Beijing invited the Overseas Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and beyond to do business, the entrepreneurs came. 

They came with a savage vengeance. Millions upon millions of women migrated south to the Pearl River and churned out textiles, toys, and other low-cost throwaways. Conditions were brutal, just as they had been in England’s Lancashire 70 years before, as described by Jeremy Seebrook. Just as much as he sees them today on the Buriganga.

As the 21st century began, moves were initiated to bring some balance in China. Today, the situation has improved dramatically, but things are by no means perfect.

The score card in China

One of the benchmarks is the comparison today to the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. Li Wen of the Women’s Studies Institute of China wrote in public domestic media that there is some way to go. There is acknowledgement that women in China face discrimination in the job market. They hold only a quarter of positions in mid to senior management, though this has improved from just 10% in 1995. 

There are positives. Life expectancy for women has risen from 70 years in the 1990s to 80 years today. More young women are in higher education, including university, than male students. The same can be said in post-grad. The gap continues to widen in favour of women. The World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks China as number one when it comes to gender balance for tertiary education. In a world increasingly run on algorithms and automation, more female developers and personnel will help prevent inbuilt male bias. 

Out of every hundred entrepreneurs in businesses based on the Internet, 55 are led by women. Women are gaining in STEM fields. Around 55% of medical and scientific jobs are held by women, though only a third in R&D. One of the striking features has been that China has consistently held the highest levels of female participation in the labour market in the world.

As China shifts to a “dual-circulation” economy of giving equal emphasis on the domestic and export markets, this along with the two-child policy, will mean that women will be the primary driver of consumption in the world’s largest market. 

However, global institutions such as the WEF do not give a clean bill of health when it comes to gender equality, ranking China at only 100 out of 144 countries on its Global Gender Gap Index. Interpretation of data is important, I guess. In the neighbouring rich countries of South Korea and Japan, women are disadvantaged.

Long-held patriarchal attitudes and prejudices exist throughout Asia, as they do in Europe. Significantly more women in the higher echelons of the Liberal Democratic Party and Communist Party in Japan and China respectively would seem to be the next logical milestone to aim for.

If we were to look at Asia as a whole, rather than only equality within individual countries, then the picture changes. China’s phenomenal rise, along its complete abolition of extreme poverty this year, has transformed the position of its women relative to most of Asia. The problems of gender in Asia in total numbers are to be found in South Asia. Whether in women’s relative and absolute food intake, housing, schooling, quality of jobs, or basic security, the comparison is shameful. 

South Asia’s powerbrokers could focus on women and industry. Instead, a week after International Women’s Day, Delhi will play superpower at a QUAD summit.

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.

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