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Even In Boomtimes, Why Asian Women Can't Get Ahead

In Hong Kong
In Hong Kong
Betty Ng

In spite of the economic growth and rising living standards in many Asian countries, the status of women has strangely stagnated, and even regressed.

If women's status is only measured by remuneration, Asia surely wouldn't be the only place where there is a marked disparity between the sexes. For instance, according to the United States Department of Labor, in 2012 American women with the same qualifications and doing the same jobs as men earn on average 19% less than their male counterparts. Another report showed that only 17% of high-ranking executives in American companies are women.

Yet in comparison with America and Europe, the Asian condition is even more distressing. Though Asia has seen very high economic growth in the past decade, the gap between men and women's wages hasn't improved. In the mature economy of South Korea, the gap is particularly dismal. Last year, the International Trade Union Confederation released a global study of the gender wage gap of 43 countries in the world, which found an average total of 18.4%. This figure has been adjusted to take into account men and women's working time difference. The largest is in Zambia (45.6%), followed by South Korea (37.2%).

Interestingly, in Japan, once the calculation of the gender wage gap is changed from per month (34.3%) to per hour (13.5%), the difference was reduced significantly to be close to that of Indonesia, and is even smaller than that of Australia (16.9%). This says that though Indonesia is a largely Muslim country, its women seem to be surprisingly better off than in neighboring countries.

Meanwhile in Japan, it seems that men are earning more than women mostly because they work much longer hours than women. So the question is whether or not Japanese women have the power to choose to work longer hours. If the answer is no, then apart from the wage gap there exists also an opportunity gap. The cultural and the population distribution levels of Japan and South Korea are very similar, so it is stunning that the gender wage gap is so different in these two countries.

It's regrettable that the study doesn't include the Chinese mainland, Singapore and Hong Kong. However, another study published in 2011 by the management consulting firm McKinsey offers a glimpse in this regard. Compared with Europe, Asian countries lack family-friendly policies to support married women. This is a major occupational obstacle for Asian women. These policies include entitling both men and women to enjoy the same parental leave to allow and encourage parents to raise children with the same amount of time and responsibility.

In Singapore and Hong Kong, many families rely on foreign domestic helpers so it doesn't look like the problem of sharing housework or childcare is that serious. But in reality this is just "contracting out" the problem and the issue remains unsolved fundamentally. Just ask any married career woman in Hong Kong or Singapore. Many of them will say that it's them, rather than their husbands, who manage the domestic helpers at home and look after the schools for their children.

Glass ceiling

The Chinese female labor force participation rate (74%) is the highest in Asia. However, it trails in its representation of women on corporate boards. The top three are Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Thus, although many Chinese women have jobs, they are task-executers rather than decision-makers. China's economy has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, but it's men rather than women who are by far the biggest beneficiaries.

In a strange kind of way, this can perhaps explain why the “minor third,” or mistress phenomenon, has grown ever more common in recent years. Certain women probably regard becoming the lover of a rich and powerful man as the fastest, simplest or even the only way to have a share of the economic development.

The fact that contemporary Chinese culture tolerates this kind of behavior might have also exacerbated the problem. Despite the derogatory term used, society also, strangely enough, implicitly accepts this situation.

One can find some early clues by looking at Hong Kong, which shares the same ethnic and cultural roots as the Chinese mainland.

Hong Kong was colonized by the British for nearly 100 years. Its per capita GDP is among the world’s top. However, despite its prosperity and seeming westernization, illegal polygamy is to a certain extent quietly accepted. Take the Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho as an example. The extravagant lifestyle of his four wives and 17 children provides massive public entertainment. Ho's confidantes are equally referred to by the media as his "wives," and they are distinguished by numbers, though "wife" should only mean the legal spouse. In other words, from the media to the public, de facto polygamy is tolerated.

The battle of two girlfriends of Joseph Lau, another Hong Kong tycoon, also offers the local public lots of amusement. One of these two ladies is reported to hold a doctorate from Britain while the other only has a high-school diploma. Regardless of their education, they are both willing to tolerate the "three rows" relationship, and continue anonymously making and raising children with Lau without any formal protection by the law.

In essence, the culture views multiple partners as a natural phenomenon and a right for a rich man. It can be accepted as long as one can afford to offer each of these women a sumptuous life. Wealth allows a man to choose and keep women because even intelligent and well-educated women are willing to accommodate an unfaithful man.

If even the westernized Hong Kong has such a mentality, it is not all surprising that in China, many women get to become the minor third.

Women, as they say, are capable of holding up half of the sky. However in China, despite a booming economy, they don’t seem to share half of the results. A country has to make the best use of its human resources if it is to sustain long-term growth. Chinese women may not need to be as worried as the Indian women about their personal security, but their status is another matter.

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