Big in Japan? Not if you’re a Woman

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Courtesy: Businessweek

While women around the world are governing countries, leading central banks, running companies and coaching tennis stars, in Japan they’re being subject to sexist taunts from the Dark Ages.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase access to the country’s notoriously inadequate daycare facilities, extend maternity leave and encourage companies to name female board members in a highly publicised campaign against gender inequality. But these remain well-intentioned proposals at best, undermined by a deep-rooted patriarchy and a widely held notion that a woman’s place is at home, raising kids in her geta sandals.

Last week, these traits were on display for all to see, as Ayaka Shiomura, a Tokyo assemblywoman, was reduced to tears by the jeering of her male colleagues when she called on the local government to assist women with child rearing and to fund infertility treatments. Her crime? Being single and childless.

Japan’s male leaders have a long history of sexism, calling women baby-making machines and labeling career women selfish for delaying childbirth and undeserving of pensions. Even in companies, women are expected to serve the tea at meetings, no matter their position.

Japanese men are clearly oblivious to just how badly they need women to take on more jobs and be more involved in governing. Japan ranks behind Saudi Arabia in the proportion of women in parliament, according to a gender-gap report by the World Economic Forum. Its working-age population is set to shrink by almost half by 2060. Japan’s GDP could rise by as much as 13 percent by closing the gender employment gap, according to a Goldman Sachs report.

Criticising an assemblywoman in a public meeting for her choices is hardly assuring. Japanese men may try leaning in a bit. 

The Big, Fat, Gender-Biased Indian Election

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Via: WSJ

You may have heard the numbers: 815 million voters; 543 lawmakers; 9 rounds of voting in the world’s largest democracy. You also know who’s projected to win: the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led by divisive leader Narendra Modi, with the ruling Congress party set for its worst performance ever.

What you probably haven’t heard is how skewed India’s voter gender ratio is: 883 women voters per 1,000 male voters. Give or take. That’s an improvement from 715 per 1,000 male voters in the 1960s, according to data compiled by Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor, professors at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. But it is lower even than the national gender ratio, embarrassing as it is, of 940 women per 1,000 men.

How has this come about? Not for want of legislation. Indian women were granted the right to vote and run in elections three years after India’s independence in 1947, the same year as men. Women have played a significant role in Indian politics down: from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to present-day chief ministers Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa Jayaram.

Still, India’s largely patriarchal tradition and cultural mores that require women to acquiesce to the opinion of men has meant that women have often not been a part of the political conversation, or showed up to vote on election day. That has also resulted in very few women lawmakers: of nearly 5,000 lawmakers across the country, less than 10 percent are women.

While the Indian government did implement a law in 2009 that mandated the reservation of at least half the seats at panchayati raj or local government institutions in villages and districts for women, it has dragged its feet on the Women’s Reservation Bill. The bill proposes to amend the Indian Constitution to reserve a third of all seats in the lower house and all state legislative assemblies for women, and has not been passed by the lower house after the upper house passed it in 2010.

India ranks 101 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender-gap index that examines economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. That is the lowest ranking among the BRIC economies, and is lower than Botswana and Bangladesh.

In this election, the year-old Aam Admi Party has the highest percentage of women candidates, about 15 percent, while the Congress has 12 percent and the BJP has 9 percent. That doesn’t bode well for the future of women’s representation in India.

A Bank of Women, by Women, for Women

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week opened the first branch of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (Indian Women’s Bank) in Mumbai, which will employ only women, and accept deposits from and lend mostly to women.

Importantly, this bank will have branches in smaller towns and villages where its services are most required. And while men may also operate accounts here, the focus will be on women, and making educating women financially-aware.

Why a bank – primarily – for women? Only 26 percent of women in India have an account in a financial institution – be it a bank, a credit union, a post office or a microfinance institution – compared with 46 percent of men, according to a study by the World Bank. 

Financial inclusion is a big challenge in many developing countries where barriers to opening a bank account or taking a loan include physical distance, lack of documentation and high costs; only 35 percent of Indians have access to banking services compared to a global average of 50 percent, and a developing-nation average of 41 percent, according to World Bank data.

In India, even as more women are getting an education and jobs, millions still have no access to basic financial services and are reduced to being dependent on their fathers or their husbands to manage their money. At the same time, some of the top private banks, from ICICI Bank to HSBC Plc and JP Morgan in India have women CEOs. 

Microfinance institutions and self-help groups have done much to improve access to financial services for women, as have the advent of mobile phones and the rollout of India’s unique identification system. Simply setting up a bank of women will not solve entrenched social issues and traditions which continue to favor men. But it is a start, and much like India’s popular ladies’-special-trains, the bank may lower the barriers for women in a deeply patriarchal society.

Fading Opportunities for Women in the Land of the Rising Sun

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I am just back from a vacation in Japan (highly recommend it), where I was as struck by the cutting-edge technology in everything from toilets to trains and the wondrous aesthetic sense of shop assistants and chefs alike, as I was by the appalling gender gap.

Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy (overtaken by China in 2010, in case you missed it), is the world’s most rapidly aging advanced country, with also the widest gender gap among developed countries. This is not something to be proud of; yet, one leader after another, one CEO after another, has failed to address the issue, to Japan’s great detriment. 

Global female labor-force participation has stalled at about 50 percent for two decades, according to a report in September from the International Monetary Fund.  More than half the nations in East Asia and the Pacific have restrictions on the types of jobs women can do, according to the World Bank. Failure to integrate women fully into the workforce is costing the Asia-Pacific region about $89 billion a year in unrealized output, according to the United Nations. 

Japan’s 63 percent of women in the workforce is comparable more to developing countries, and most women are confined to lower-paying and lower-rung jobs. Even in fancy offices, women until very recently were required to serve tea to their male colleagues and  having a baby is a sure route to career-wilderness, as there is little by way of public daycare, and hiring a nanny is an expensive process.

Christine Lagarde, among the most high-profile women in the world as managing director of the IMF, has made it something of a personal crusade to call out countries on their female participation, and in asking them to report on gender issues. In a paper last year called ‘Can Women Save Japan’, the IMF highlighted the many hurdles to working women in Japan, and suggested ways to remove them – primarily, with policies to reduce the gender gap in work and better support for working mothers. The economic outlook for Japan would be much brighter if more women joined the labour force, it said.

In April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced measures to elevate the role of women, calling for women to fill 30 percent of senior positions across different parts of the society by 2020 and vowing to eliminate waiting lists for childcare and provide training for mothers returning to work. While Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba and Daiwa have all recently pledged to increase the number of female managers significantly in the coming years, Japan resolutely refuses to mandate quotas for women in the government or in company boards. The sun may well be setting, and quickly.  

Women Are Less Equal in Natural Disasters

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Pic: CNN/Getty Images

The Philippines is still assessing the destruction wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan, which is estimated to have killed at least 10,000 people and caused damage costing billions of dollars. The super typhoon may have a greater economic impact on the country than Hurricane Sandy did in the U.S., according to estimates from disaster modelling by Kinetic Analysis Corp.

What’s definitely clear though, is that the country’s women will be hit harder than the men. This is true not just in the Philippines, but pretty much in any disaster area, particularly in a developing nation.

“There is a pattern of gender differentiation at all levels of the disaster process: exposure to risk, risk perception, preparedness, response, physical impact, psychological impact, recovery and reconstruction,” the World Health Organization notes. “Due to social norms and their interaction with biological factors, women and girls may face increased risk to adverse health effects and violence. They may be unable to access assistance safely and/or to make their needs known. Additionally, women are insufficiently included in community consultation and decision-making processes, resulting in their needs not being met.”

Fortunately, the Philippines has the smallest gender gap among developing nations and its women are a feisty, resilient lot. Even so, the government, aid agencies and donors would be well-advised to keep women front and center as the country recovers from the tragedy.

Mind the Gap. Your Fortune Depends on it.

Just a few surprises in the latest Global Gender Gap Report, 2013 released by the World Economic Forum. For the fifth straight year, Iceland tops the list and is followed by its Nordic peers Finland, Norway and Sweden. The surprise is in No. 5: the Philippines. It’s the only Asian country to make the Top 10, and handily beats mightier rivals from Germany to the UK. The U.S. is a distant No. 23, in case you were wondering.

The Philippines has steadily climbed up the ranks: in 2010 it was ranked No. 9 on the index that measures the gap between women and men in terms of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The country is the only one in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health, the report said.

Much of the improvement can be attributed directly to President Benigno Aquino, who has appointed women in top posts from chief justice to chief tax collector in a bid to end corruption. He has even taken on the Catholic Church to push through legislation to allow free access to contraception as he seeks to reduce poverty.

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Today, Chief Justice Maria Sereno and the gun-toting head of the Bureau of Internal Revenue Kim Henares, are household names in a country whose most famous – ok, notorious – woman was known only by the extent of her shoe collection.

It’s not all good news, though. While the gender gap narrowed slightly across the globe in 2013, with 86 of 133 countries showing improvements, “change is definitely slow”, the report said. And as for why closing the gender gap is important: it is not only a matter of human rights and equity; it is also one of efficiency.

Little wonder then, that the Philippine economy is growing at more than 7 percent annually – second only to China in the region – and the country has been awarded its first investment-grade rankings by all three ratings agencies this year. Philippine women can take some credit for that.

When Constitutions Collude to Keep Women Out of Politics

Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded a five-day visit to Singapore, her first to the city state. In her many meetings and speeches – all warm, witty and carefully delivered – she asked companies to invest responsibly in Myanmar, invited Burmese nationals in Singapore to participate in the country’s transition, and reiterated her demand that the constitution be changed, so she can run in elections to be held in 2015.

Myanmar’s constitution gives the military a lot of power in the political system and prohibits anyone with children who are foreign nationals from holding the posts of President or Vice-President. That is clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals.

That the military has no interest in giving up its cushy position is hardly surprising. That a woman is deliberately being sidelined from the political system in Asia is also, unfortunately, not surprising.

Women’s political participation in Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands is well below the global average, according to research from Monash University. In all these regions, “there is strong resistance to women’s participation in public life evidenced in the formal statements of leaders and politicians and in the mentalities of the broader societies. Cultural, customary and religious discourses are frequently used to moralize that the ‘rightful’ place of women is NOT in politics,” the researchers wrote in a paper last year. Violence against women in politics or those seeking political office is very common in these countries, the report noted.

While gender quotas and reservations have significantly improved women’s political participation in some Asian countries, others are dragging their feet over such legislation. In India, a women’s reservation bill in India, which proposes to amend the constitution to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the lower house of Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies for women, has languished for more than three years in the lower house. Women’s political participation in India is 11 percent.

Elsewhere, women do slightly better. In China, where Mao famously said ‘women hold up half the sky’, their political participation is about a fifth of the total, whereas in South Korea it’s 16 percent. The Philippines – where President Aquino, whose mother was once President, and who has recently appointed women to key posts including Chief Justice and Tax Collector – the participation rate is nearly a fourth, while in Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra is Prime Minister, albeit a mere puppet of her brother, the rate is 15 percent. Myanmar – and this should come as no surprise to Daw Suu – has the lowest score of all Asian countries measured, of less than 2 percent.

Investors rushing in to cash in on the gold rush that is Myanmar would do well to remember that statistic alongside the numbers on Myanmar’s gas reserves and its potential for mobile phone users and credit-card holders.

Love Our Goddesses, Hate Our Women

A print ad campaign in India with images of battered Hindu goddesses seeks to highlight a disturbing dichotomy in the country’s culture: a reverence for goddesses and female deities on the one hand and rising numbers of rapes and abuses of women and girls on the other. You can see the images here.

How to explain this twisted double standard? Is it the patriarchal mindset, the centuries-old preference for boys, repeated reinforcements of chauvinism in the popular culture, the lack of strong legislation, or feeble political will to take a stand? All of these and more, perhaps.

There has been a 16 percent jump in the number of reported rapes in India in the five years through 2012, and a 902 percent jump since 1971, Bloomberg reported, citing police records. In the first six months of 2013 alone, reported rapes in New Delhi soared to 806 from 330 in the same period a year earlier.

An ad campaign, no matter how striking, is not going to put an end to it, even if the men charged in the horrific Delhi gang-rape were found guilty after a speedy (by Indian standards) trial. But the campaign it has at least got people talking.

There may be fewer goddesses in Bangladesh and China,  but that doesn’t mean there’s less violence against women in these countries. Almost a quarter of men surveyed in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, said they had committed rape at least once, according to a survey of more than 10,000 men. The survey, published in The Lancet Global Health journal,  is said to be the first multi-country one on the prevalence of rape, and is part of a UN report on violence in Asia and the Pacific.

One in 10 men said they had raped a woman who wasn’t a partner; with partners included, that number jumped to 24 percent. Just under half said they had raped more than one woman. Nearly three quarters of those who committed rape said they did so for “sexual entitlement”. The second most common reason was rape as a form of entertainment. In other words, they were bored. Makes for chilling reading.