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.

Women have played a fundamental role in driving economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region. Rapid industrialisation and socioeconomic changes have seen a significant increase in women in the workplace over the past thirty years, leading to structural transformation in the labour force and real poverty reduction. Despite this progress, women continue to hold merely one in five positions of leadership in the Asia-Pacific workforce, and continue to face obstacles to career progression. Globally, women make up 39 per cent of the labour force, lagging those of men, and in the Asia Pacific around 60 per cent versus 80 per cent for men, according to the World Bank. Women remain systematically under-represented at the most senior levels of organisations.

The deep social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the Asia Pacific raises some real questions about whether it will be possible to address that inequality.

Barriers to women’s leadership in the Asia Pacific have their origins in social constructs including patriarchy, religion, and misogyny. Today, gender stereotypes and social pressures are two key obstacles hindering female representation in the workforce. Family commitments—in particular the expectation that women should shoulder the majority of household responsibilities (due to the lack of childcare options)—contribute towards limiting women’s opportunities.

As women have entered the workforce in increasing numbers, the ‘double burden’ of work and household responsibilities has had an impact. The majority of women engage in approximately four hours daily of unpaid labour. That means both less time available and less income for women, leaving them more vulnerable than men. Therefore, access to the workforce is not a solution in itself to gender inequality.

Given these issues are not new, why is it imperative that we discuss them now? This year has seen an unprecedented set of challenges with the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has shed light on the inequality that women face while highlighting their vulnerability in society. Notably, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more likely to be jeopardised due to the pandemic. Globally, women consist of nearly 40 per cent of global employment, yet today make up more than fifty per cent of overall job losses.

Women represent the majority of part-time and casual workers in most Asia Pacific economies. With economic downturn as a result of the pandemic, they are more prone to reductions in hours or losing their jobs.  The ‘Unlocking the Lockdown’ report by UN Women on the gendered effects of the pandemic, found that 53 per cent of women had seen their work hours reduced, compared to 31 per cent of men, and 66 per cent of women had seen COVID-19 impact them financially, compared to 54 per cent of men. For example, women’s job losses as a result of the pandemic are estimated at between 25 and 56 per cent in South Asia.

Additionally, the ‘stay at home’ restrictions combined with traditional gender norms have, in some cases, changed the power dynamics between men and women. This has resulted in drastic increases in the amount of unpaid care and domestic work carried out by women. It is important to note that before the pandemic, women were doing three times more unpaid care and domestic work than men were at the global level. Global expectations of women have resulted in them prioritising household responsibilities (i.e. chores and childcare) during the pandemic with their share of unpaid care in some regions of Asia are as high as 90 per cent.

Moreover, being at home more often has increased the likelihood of domestic abuse due to the high-stress levels exacerbated by the lockdown. Studies show that for every quarter the lockdown continues, there will be an extra fifteen million gender-based violence cases. The need to isolate prohibits women from leaving their homes and hinders their ability to ask for and seek help.

Clearly the global pandemic risks stalling the progress that we have made towards gender equality in the workplace and beyond. While the world attempts to transition through COVID-19, women risk being left behind. Not only is that an enormous social problem but a serious economic challenge.

The lack of inclusivity of nearly half the population could cost trillions of dollars due to inefficient labour allocation and a decrease in productivity at a time when the global economy can least afford that.

While the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals highlight the importance of gender equality, the COVID crisis appears to be slowing progress towards that aim. In the interests of long-term prosperity and growth, we should elevate the priority of gender equality. It is now, more important than ever, to work for change.

Policymakers need to consider a gendered lens to enable a better understanding of the disproportionate impact women face because of the global pandemic. Women can play an exceptional role in helping the economy mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Applying a gendered lens will improve countries’ GDP while enhancing business performance.

We know that gender equality plays a crucial role in a more sustainable society, so why are we all not on the same page? Without acting now millions of women will be affected, while the economy suffers too. It is time to step-up for change.


Penny Burtt is the Group CEO of Asialink at the University of Melbourne, a centre for creative engagement with Asia. A former diplomat with extensive experience in the Asia Pacific, she is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion. She has served as a member of the Executive of Singapore’s women’s board advocacy organization, BoardAgender, and supports a range of women’s organisations as a mentor.

Nikita Shewandas is an Intern with Asialink while completing her Master of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is a purpose-driven individual and is a strong advocate for social and economic inclusion.