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The Philippines is thought to be a bit ahead in gender parity in the region. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, the Philippines is ranked 7th out of 145 countries — the highest-ranked country in the Asia-Pacific and the only one to make it into the top 10 worldwide. Studies have found that 37% of senior management and board positions are held by women – ranking the Philippines also in the global Top 10. According to the index, Filipino women are also more active in starting a business than men (51%). Globally, the Philippines has the smallest gender gap among business owners, with a split of 55% male against 45% female.

While the statistics provide a positive picture of female empowerment in business circles, the Philippines can still improve further the role of women in the work force where there are gaps in education, skills, social standing and even geography. This is a finding in a recent EY report titled “Can ASEAN move forward if women are left behind?”

The report is particularly relevant and timely, given the recent 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community. Among the major insights contained in the report include the observation that ASEAN economies are increasingly recognizing the reality that to genuinely achieve sustained economic growth, it is vital to invest in gender parity and women. Studies have shown that doing so can contribute significantly toward building greater capacity and a higher quality work orce to drive further economic growth. Yet, the degree of investment in women across ASEAN remains disparate and gender parity champions see that there is still a collective need to ensure that hard-won gains on achieving gender parity are not lost amid a fast-changing environment.

Ambassador Delia D. Albert, SGV Senior Adviser, who participated in the study says: “The ASEAN region is still dominated by many gaps. There are horizontal gaps that consist of development gaps between and among the member countries, as well as gender equality gaps. There are also the vertical gaps between women who are well-educated and have better access to leadership roles and those who have fewer possibilities and are stymied by economic and social circumstances. These gaps hinder the possibilities for leadership roles.”

To that end, governments play an important role in working with corporations to ensure that women have equal opportunities. “In view of the varying stages of development and systems in the 10 member countries of ASEAN, different types of support may be considered according to the needs of each individual country,” adds Ambassador Albert.

The report looks at three specific areas on which policy makers can focus to create a more conducive labor market where women can thrive:

First, governments can seek to mandate the minimum amount of support that women receive at the workplace, particularly in areas such as maternity leave and child care.

Across ASEAN, provisions for maternity leave are generally well laid-out but further enhancements can be considered. Other than the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam, governments in the ASEAN generally do not pay fully for maternity leave. Singapore and Thailand adopt a hybrid approach whereby the government pays for a portion of the maternity costs.

Encouragingly, Senate Bill No. 1305 or the Expanded Maternity Leave law, was passed on third and final reading in the Philippine Senate in 2017. Once enacted into law, it will upgrade the current maternity benefits provided to mothers under existing laws, such as extending the maternity leave granted to female employees in both the public and private sectors to 120 days, paid leave, as well security of tenure, among others.

To motivate companies to grant female employees more maternity benefits, ASEAN member governments can consider providing partial subsidies to alleviate cost pressures in the form of cash reimbursements or enhanced tax deductions, or directly to employees. Countries that enjoy high levels of female work force participation can also consider making provisions for paternity leave to enable men to co-share child care at home.

Policies to improve child care access and quality are just as critical in helping women to join, remain or re-enter the work force after giving birth. ASEAN countries can consider establishing subsidized child care infrastructure to support mothers, which is particularly important in the developing markets where child care options are limited, and a significant percentage of women may not be formally employed or are agricultural-based.

Another alternative is to provide subsidies or enhanced tax deductions to help companies offset the costs of running child care centers at the workplace. For higher-educated women, other forms of tax relief to encourage mothers to remain in the work force, such as tax deduction on a certain percentage of child care fees incurred or special tax rebates, will be helpful.

The second area that governments can focus on is to encourage the private sector to invest in capacity-building and leadership opportunities for women through training and skills upgrading.

In the ASEAN, incentives to encourage training are typically across the board, and not many are targeted at the needs of women throughout their life cycle in the labor force. In the less developed ASEAN countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where large populations of women lack basic vocational skillsets that allow them to participate actively in the labor market, governments should advocate training programs that are specific to women from the unskilled to skilled level.

For example, the Philippine government provides cash support for a pilot skills training program whereby participating women will be trained in a wide range of skills including basic computing, business skills, baking and dressmaking.

Based on a World Bank Report, Expanding Women’s Access to Financial Services, women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises represent 30% to 37% of all firms (approximately 8 million to 10 million) in emerging markets, requiring between $260-320 billion a year in funding and capital.

We should note that public and private sector efforts and investments continue to open markets to women entrepreneurs across the entirety of the ASEAN. For example, in the Philippines, legislation such as the law on Gender and Development (GAD) has been a big boost in empowering women to work outside of the home. Under the GAD Budget, government entities must allocate 5% of their total budget to address the needs of working women, such as day cares to allow working mothers to keep their children close by. Progressive legislation such as this can help more women professionals and staff to work full time while raising a family.

The Philippines also has the Magna Carta for Women, which is a comprehensive women’s rights law that aims to eliminate discrimination against women by granting them equal access to work opportunities, further supporting the dual roles that women are expected to play in society.

With the rise of disruptive technologies, automation is impacting and eliminating roles in sectors where there is a high rate of employment of women, such as agriculture, garments and textiles (especially in the developing ASEAN countries), health care, manufacturing, services, retail, and food and beverage.

Based on the report, ASEAN in transformation: How technology is changing jobs and enterprises, by the International Labor Organization, women in the Philippines and Vietnam are twice as likely to occupy jobs at high risk of automation as their male counterparts. What this points to is the imperative to ensure that girls and women in ASEAN have access to quality education and training that are relevant and matched to market demands now and into the future.

Women provide a source of talent needed to propel economic growth and prosperity across ASEAN. For the less developed ASEAN countries, working on the foundation to support women participation in the work force is key. Governments and corporations should collaborate to advance the role of women in the work place. Perhaps, the Philippines can take the lead in sharing its best practices in gender parity and women empowerment with the other ASEAN member economies that may be struggling to unlock possibilities that would uplift the women in their work force. Only by safeguarding the future of women in the ASEAN can we likewise ensure the continuing resilience of the region’s cultures, economies and communities.

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. The views and opinion expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of SGV & Co.


J. Carlitos G. Cruz is the Chairman and Managing Partner of SGV & Co.