Asia’s workforce should reflect its population.

Today, only 49% of working age women in developing Asia participate in the laborforce compared with 80% of men. And the number is down from 56% in 1990. For South Asia, the lowest in the region, women’s workforce participation is 30% versus 80% for men. On average, a woman in developing Asia is paid only 77% that of her male counterpart. Less than 10% of positions on corporate boards are held by women and just over 10% of government ministers in the region are female.

We must change this. Gender equality matters in its own right but it also makes economic sense. Our Asian Development Outlook 2015 Update estimated that eliminating gender disparities in developing Asia would boost per capita income by 70% within two generations and help the region sustain its current pace of economic growth and development. This is particularly important with many Asian countries seeing their demographic dividend fade. Helping women earn more will also reduce poverty rates.

There are five main ways to collectively achieve this.

More Education, More Skills Training

We must work harder to make sure more girls complete their secondary and tertiary schooling. It is also important to boost their access to technical and vocational training since it helps women get jobs in higher-paying professions such as engineering or high-tech industries. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is addressing these issues across developing Asia. For instance, in Lao PDR, we help the government provide technical vocational education and training with tuition subsidies, stipends, and boarding facilities for girls who learn skills such as in construction and machine repair. We also offer employers financial support when they give apprenticeships to female graduates in such male-dominated sectors. Other programs supported by ADB like JobStart in the Philippines – which provides internships and job placements for young graduates – help women get their crucial first foot on the job ladder.

Helping Women Start Businesses

Through ADB’s small and medium enterprise financing projects in many countries, we are encouraging women to start and expand businesses. Often, women’s limited land ownership restrains their capacity to borrow money. There are some promising solutions. In Nepal, the introduction of land titles jointly held by husbands and wives, and a 30% land registration tax exemption in rural areas when ownership is transferred to women, are reaping rewards. Being able to use movable assets such as machinery and jewelry as collateral can make it easier for female entrepreneurs to access finance. Expansion of credit registries to include microfinance would help women establish a credit record to access bigger loans.

Reducing the Burden At Home

Across rural Asia, ADB boosts access to water, electricity, affordable transportation, and time-saving technologies such as clean cookstoves, giving millions of women a relief from drudgery and more time to generate income. Affordable childcare services would free up women to stay in jobs. However, a recent World Bank study showed only a third of Asian countries has public preschool child care while most countries in South Asia and the Pacific provide no work flexibility for mothers of young children. Developing Asia needs to have clear policies and measures to help mothers pursue their careers, including tax rebates or other financial support for childcare and labor practices like flexible working hours.

Tackling discrimination

Laws in some countries in Asia still restrict the type of jobs women can do. Such laws exist in 19 out of 34 developed and developing Asian countries and apply most often to mining, construction, and manufacturing. Many countries have no laws against discrimination in hiring or to ensure equal pay for equal work. This must change if countries are to make best use of their human capital. Anti-discrimination laws should be rigorously enforced and complemented by awareness campaigns to prevent prejudice in the workplace. Harassment and violence against women should not be tolerated at home, at work, or on the way to work. They should not deter women from seeking jobs.

Increasing female leadership

We are seeing some positive changes, with quotas for women in boardrooms and in government. Malaysia in 2011 mandated that by 2016, women must make up 30% of senior managers at firms with over 250 employees. Meanwhile, quotas in local government in South Asia have pushed more women into elected positions. In Bangladesh, ADB and other partners promote local women leaders through their urban infrastructure projects. This ensures that local budgets are allocated to women’s priority infrastructure such as schools, water, and sanitation. Our flagship Asia Women Leaders Program helps train women in public administration to become effective leaders.

Bringing more women into the workplace, whether on the factory floor, the executive office, or the ministerial suite will help Asia – and its 2 billion women - unleash their full potential. If the workforce reflects the population, everyone wins.