The unbreakable ceiling: What’s holding back ASEAN’s women?

Women are underrepresented in the southeast Asian business and political world, often held back by gaps in education or opportunity.

By Holly Reeves

“We women have more difficulties than men in running businesses smoothly because traditional Khmer norms allow only responsibility for housework,” explains one Cambodian business holder.

She adds, “If women run businesses, they are small ones when they have a family because they spend much time taking care of their children.” This divide is a key issue for the women of the ASEAN region; while there are highly educated and capable women who can, and do, take on business and political leadership roles, the majority find themselves held back by family, obligations, caring duties and other traditional positions.

For those that do step into the business world, and evidence suggests there are more female-owned small-to-medium sized business than male, these are cut off from sources of financing to grow their ideas. This is because some women prefer informal sources of financing, such as local lenders, which are simpler, and require less paperwork than formal credit from banks.  

Others keep their businesses small due to their responsibilities at home, or because their resources are needed to safeguard and finance education and health for their families. At the same time, some face religious challenges that mean they could not approach formal lenders unless they had the support of a male.

Playing against a stacked deck?

Another relevant point is the region’s often-complicated rules on ownership which can prevent them from purchasing land, or entering the marketplace to get the equipment and facilities to grow their business. “
If a woman starts a business and she’s relying on informal financing, it’s not going to grow at the rate a formally financed man’s small businesses will grow,” says Jaclyn Berfond, a Research, Monitoring and Evaluation specialist at Women’s World Banking. This entrenched problem often keeps a woman’s business ambitions low-key.

But while many struggle to break the glass ceiling, others blaze a trail in the corporate sector. According to Forbes’ Asia’s 50 Power Businesswomen of 2016 female CEOs lead retail operations in many Southeast Asian countries, including Chadatip Chutrakul of Siam Piwat in Thailand and Robina Gokongwei-Pe of Robinson’s in the Philippines.

In fact, the global proportion of senior business roles held by women is somewhere around 24%, though a further one in three businesses will have no women in senior management at all. Both locally and globally the Philippines sets a shining example – it has women in senior roles in 39% of businesses. But, sadly, it seems most of these women are edge cases, those that have managed to overcome an inherent gender equality in the system that limits opportunity, and often education, for women due to poverty, bias or family obligations.

Mind the gap

To understand the wider picture, the Gender Gap Index 2015 considered male-female comparisons on economic, political, educational and health criteria and showed most southeast Asian countries outperforming China, Japan and India. However, Indonesia, Cambodia and Malaysia still fell to the back of the pack.

Evidencing the point about the importance of education, the figures showed that the best performer in the region, the Philippines, scored highly on the number of high-earning women, but also in education and training available. With one, comes the other.

And it seems this in not a matter of money, as Singapore had very similar scores to Laos in the gender index scales. Regardless of the opportunity available, the path to traditional obligations can be hard to break. This must be, at least partly, attributed to the Asian traditions of male domination of public discourse, status and hierarchy.

Making and breaking the cycle

As a side note, it is interesting to consider that this kind of discrimination is a relatively new idea. Historically the women of southeast Asia had far greater autonomy than their sisters across the Asia-Pacific region. The earliest colonial records show women were often considered more effective, and traders relied on their women to support their trades and deals.

In the present day, the problem is not always with a lack of laws and agreements. ASEAN member states have each enacted legislation to protect and promote women’s rights. There is, however, large differences between countries on how far these reach and how well they are implemented or monitored.

According to one 2014 report, “What success looks like in any particular country will depend on political realities and cultural norms, but it’s clear that the attention of public officials as well as both male and female CEOs of publicly held companies makes a difference. And when that is combined with corporate transparency about gender diversity, investors can help by supporting progress and holding companies accountable.”

The problem here is made worse by the fact that alongside fewer female senior businesswomen, there are also fewer senior female politicians that could guide a more effective policy process – even in well-developed nations like Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

The reasons for the lack of women making it to the top in ASEAN are many, but the roots are all the same. A lack of access to education, pressure to take on traditional responsibilities and a culture that accords status to men. To break this cycle requires women to become part of the cycle, where those that have been afforded precious opportunity advocate publicly to empower others to influence the decisions and actions that affect their daily lives.