The Asia Pacific Women thought leadership series brings focus to the status of women in the Asia-Pacific region through expert commentary on women’s social inclusion and economic engagement in several aspects of life.
The Asia-Pacific region is changing the world. It hums with an entrepreneurial energy and spirit of opportunity that permeates everywhere from local marketplaces to the sprawling headquarters of multinational corporations. It demonstrates unrivalled dynamism and diversity. And, as an economic powerhouse frequently referred to as the “engine of global growth”, the region increasingly fuels and influences the lives of citizens and states across the globe.
Yet, female poverty and power within the region represents one of the greatest challenges, and opportunities, facing this century. East Asia and the Pacific is the last region in the world expected to gain gender equality—in 171 years. While Asian women have made considerable gains in education, this has not translated sufficiently to the opportunities offered by employment and entrepreneurship, with women remaining ingrained in poverty and facing lower economic opportunities. Even when entrepreneurship opportunities are seized, women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are often smaller in scale, scope, and profit than those owned by men. They are often at the micro level or involved in the informal sector. In short, their opportunities are often lesser, and their impact—while profound—is often overlooked.
This has considerable ramifications for both individuals and communities. In fact, we know that gender inequality contributes to poorer development outcomes and instability across individual, community and state levels. We know that greater gender equality on the other hand, particularly in the economy and entrepreneurship, is correlated with higher growth and lower poverty.
However, in all the talk around the lives and opportunities of women entrepreneurs, important gaps remain. In between successful #girlboss women pioneering their digital dreams or spearheading corporate companies, there are those who never quite make it, whose stories remain unheard and whose voices unrecognised in the flow of expertise on enterprise and the economy. For young people in particular, challenges remain: in accessing capital and credit, in challenging social or cultural limitations, and in gaining the necessary skills and resources needed to grow. Bounded by vertical hierarchies and horizontal silos, young women confront seemingly endless challenges in navigating entrepreneurship across a region more diverse than almost any other in the world.
Gender inequality is the most pervasive form of inequality around the world, with systemic poverty still characterising many women and girls’ experiences in our region. In fact, while both men and women experience poverty, gender inequality means that women have fewer resources to cope with it. Whilst women play major roles in agriculture and development to lift their families out of poverty, infrequently are they recognised for this work, with women’s contributions and success rarely altering normative beliefs and practices that entitle men to control women and family resources. Additionally, existing statutory and customary laws limit women’s access to land and other forms of property in half the countries in Asia.
Poverty, of course, is implicated in power and powerlessness, which further defines many women’s experiences—in the home, the workplace, and the state. Whilst women represent 61 million entrepreneurs in ASEAN alone, and in some countries represent a majority of all entrepreneurs, the reality is far from being a simple gender success story writ in the shining lights of big business. Often, women’s entrepreneurship is a result of bounded choices—the need to still put food on the table, educate young ones, care for the elderly, and survive in many cases without access to social policy supports—which tend to overlook many of women’s circumstances, if they even exist in the first place.
How entrepreneurship, access to capital, and access to markets is characterised by women from many of these backgrounds varies widely from the discussions being held in most economic forums and business chambers of the world. In the region, women spend between 60 and 84 per cent of their time doing unpaid nonmarket work. This has implications on their ability to create sustainable and effective enterprise, significantly drawing on their time and limiting their ability to participate in paid market work.
Assuming they then make it to market and are able to compete on an equal footing with competitors of unequal advantage to themselves, a devastating 1 per cent of global procurement goes to women-owned business. Further, let us not forget that gender inequalities combine with inequalities resulting from race and ethnicity, class, sexuality and ability—resulting in the success-cases often being remarkably one-dimensional, and the cases of those who remain recurringly defeated, myriad in their challenges.
With public and corporate sector procurement fuelling the growth and development of many SMEs, it is estimated that if female entrepreneurs received as much support as male entrepreneurs, the global economy could experience up to a $5 trillion boost. In the meantime, women’s entrepreneurship is characterised as localised, limited and often temporary, with little chance of breaking cycles of poverty and powerlessness without outside intervention.
The other side of this story still exists however, and is one of empowerment and personal triumph, of individual successes and community achievements, stories that temper the myriad inequalities women face. To remain fixed only on the challenges limits the recognition of exactly those entrepreneurs who are out there and doing it anyway. It also overlooks the progress, however small, that has been made so far. In stepping into the region, walking alongside young businesswomen in Laos, Vietnam, Brunei and Cambodia, and linking them into the stories of social entrepreneurs and start-up techstars in the wider region, entrepreneurship does still matter. It matters to individuals and it matters to nations.
Given the gendered challenges above, as well as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the rise of the digital economy, and a rapidly changing social, environmental and economic landscape across the Asia-Pacific region, the opportunities, as stands, are threefold:
Firstly, entrepreneurship remains one of the only pathways out of poverty that women have been able to access with little reliance on anyone else. With growing technological capabilities and increased interconnectivity, the path from the informal to formal economy and global marketplace has never been more accessible either. This is particularly so for those whom were previously held down by often-clunky policy infrastructure and a lack of business capital, for whom the barriers to entry have largely lowered.
Secondly, in countries with more oppressive political or social regimes, where women and youth in particular are excluded from the policies and practices that would benefit them most, young women are using entrepreneurship to make social change otherwise inaccessible through political means. The result? Think tanks and incubators that empower the next generation of business leaders, and social entrepreneurs that take society’s problems and internalise them into their core business structure, subtly and not-so-subtly making social change that governments sometimes neglect.
Thirdly, while many women across the Asia-Pacific region may not have been in the position to predict COVID-19, or be able to foresee all the potential impacts and implications of climate change and every other disruptive world event coming our way, they are nonetheless at the coalface of a region brimming with opportunity, ideas and change. As entrepreneurs, they have an ability to leverage gaps, adapt quickly, and often do a lot, with little. In the face of uncertainty and global economic distress, where no one is unaffected, women across the Asia-Pacific region have options and drive regional opportunities.
In many cases, whether forced to or not, women will be quickest to adapt to new circumstances—already used to doing more with less. Perhaps this is the true story of women’s poverty and power in the region: less resources though they may have, women truly do hold up half the sky.
Elise Stephenson is a youth social entrepreneur and PhD Candidate from the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University, Brisbane. Her PhD is focused on women’s leadership in international affairs, specifically diplomatic and security agencies.