Why ASEAN is primed to thrive from gender equality

Advancing women’s equality in ASEAN is beneficial for the region, but a multilateral effort is required to create a more inclusive environment.

The world has made remarkable progress on gender equality in the past few decades. In measures ranging from school enrolment to labour force participation, societies have been generally moving in the right direction.

Enormous gaps remain, however, particularly in developing countries, and in many cases the Covid-19 pandemic has taken those gaps and prised them open even wider. The economic impacts of the crisis have been felt most acutely by women who generally earn less, save less, hold insecure jobs or live close to poverty1.

In Asia-Pacific, there is much to be gained from tackling this issue. Advancing women’s equality in the region could add US$4.5 trillion a year to the region’s GDP by 20252 and play a central role in realising the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals3. Per capita incomes could rise 70% within two generations by “eliminating gender disparities in employment”, an Asia Development Bank (ADB) study estimated4.


South-east Asia presents a distinctive set of opportunities and challenges. At the grassroots level, women are highly economically active. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region has one of the world’s highest labour force participation rates for women5. According to the ADB report, women own 50% of microenterprises and 59% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in East Asia and the Pacific6. In Cambodia, for example, 65% of MSMEs are classified as women-owned.

Considering that MSMEs account for more than 96% of all enterprises in Asia-Pacific7 and almost two-thirds of the labour force, women are already making a very significant economic contribution. According to some studies, the rate of female entrepreneurship in some ASEAN countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia is almost double that of India and China8.

Obstacles to Overcome

For women who have ambitions to grow their companies or move up the corporate scale, however, the picture changes. About one-third of corporate leadership positions in Southeast Asia are held by women, and in some developed economies such as Singapore the rate is even in decline9.

Part of the reason for this is that women are still overwhelmingly responsible for home and care-giving roles in most Southeast Asian countries, and the operation of small businesses doesn’t sharply disrupt those roles, while running a larger company or taking on a corporate leadership role is more likely to do so. Studies have also shown that women worldwide tend to take a less active role, and have a less positive approach, when it comes to managing their financial affairs.

Building a strong support network is essential for entrepreneurial success, particularly for female founders in a male-dominated environment.

Sam Cooper-Gray|Global Head of Market Strategy and Engagement, HSBC Business

Another reason is the availability of formal finance. Despite the high levels of business ownership in Southeast Asia, only about 5% of women-owned microenterprises and 12-15% of small businesses have adequate access to financing, in part because “women tend to lack the traditional forms of collateral…that financial institutions require to assess credit worthiness.”10

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Closing that gap could raise incomes in some countries by 12% by 2030, according to ADB estimates.

The shortfall in female representation in corporate leadership is “a waste of talent that the region can ill afford, especially when many economies are aging, labour pools are eroding, and skills shortages are on the rise,” McKinsey said in a report.11


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