Panel Discussion on the challenges and opportunities for Women in the ASEAN Economic Community

U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian visited U.S. Embassy Bangkok and met with 70 young business women and YSEALI professionals about upcoming challenges and opportunities for women in the ASEAN Economic Community.
U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian visited U.S. Embassy Bangkok and met with 70 young business women and YSEALI professionals about upcoming challenges and opportunities for women in the ASEAN Economic Community.

Bangkok, Thailand

Ladies, it is my true pleasure to be with you this afternoon to discuss the challenges and opportunities for women in ASEAN.  Thank you for joining me and thanks to my colleagues at U.S. Embassy Bangkok for arranging what I know will be an engaging discussion.

As we all know, promoting opportunities for women is not just a women’s issue.   Research shows that when societies engage, train and invest in women, the broader community benefits.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.” He added “just like in our own country, the world’s most pressing economic, social and political problems simply cannot be solved without the full participation of women.”

A Global Gender Gap Index showed there was no country in the world that has yet achieved full equality across economic, political and health indexes.  In ASEAN only the Philippines is in the top 10.  They are setting a good example for everyone, including for the United States, which is ranked at 20.  This study says what we all know – we aren’t there yet.  More needs to be done for full equality.

Although differences between female and male labor force participation have narrowed, labor markets across the world still remain divided along gender lines. When women are employed, they earn much less for the same work than their male colleagues, about 30% less globally, with a much higher differential in many countries.

Distortions and discrimination in the labor market restrict women’s options for paid work, and female representation in senior and leadership positions and in entrepreneurship remains low.

For example, the average percentage of women in parliament is around 22 % globally, and for female ministers – less than 18 %.

While some of the ASEAN Member States are slightly above the low global average when it comes to the number of women in parliament, all ten countries are below this average when it comes to the number of female ministers in their governments, unfortunately.

Women are rarely found in the board rooms or management offices of major companies in ASEAN nor are they well-represented in countries like mine, where there are few legal barriers to women.

Now, women in Thailand were among the first women in Asia who were granted the right to vote, in 1932.  And you have had a women prime minister.  This is great.  Yet despite the fact that you had a woman prime minister from 2011 to 2014 (Yingluck Shinawatra), women are still underrepresented in Thai politics.

These inequalities are major issues.  But they are issues worth tackling, because volumes and volumes of research show that when women are educated and brought into the work force, societies improve and economies grow.

Investing in women has a well-documented multiplier effect.  Women reinvest a large portion of their income in their families and communities.

It’s not that men don’t care for their families–they do– but research has found that women reinvest about 90% of their incomes in their children rather than themselves, whereas men put only 30-40% of their incomes back into their household.

Those investments mean healthier kids, with better educations, and that, in turn, means a stronger community.

A recent UN Women report concluded that, in the Asia-Pacific region alone, removing barriers to full participation of women in the workforce could boost GDP by $89 billion U.S. dollars every year.

Christine Lagard, head of the IMF, tells us that companies with several female directors on their boards and women in their top management are more profitable, and offer a better return to their shareholders.  Another McKinsey survey backs her up.  It found that companies whose leadership roles were more gender-balanced were more likely to report financial returnsabove their national industry median.  These companies also did a better job recruiting and retaining talented workers.

So it just makes plain sense that one of my top priorities as U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN is to promote opportunities for women.  We have programs and activities to support economic development for women, and we have also offered training and leadership development.

The U.S. Mission to ASEAN supports the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs’ Network, which aims to improve business skills, help women start new businesses, and link women entrepreneurs regionally and globally.  And Thailand, I want you to know, stands out among its fellow ASEAN states in this realm: Thailand’s female population comprised 47% of the country’s entrepreneurial workforce, the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs in the region of the Asia-Pacific.  So, well done and congratulations!

Our mission has supported the ASEAN – US Science Prize for Women which recognizes promising, ASEAN-based, early-career women scientists.

Last month my team hosted a Women’s Leadership Workshop for 30 young women who are, like many of you, part of President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.  This included a panel discussion titledWomen Who Lead, something we are replicating in other ASEAN countries to talk about and promote women in leadership positions.

Also last month, I attended the launch of the GREAT Women in ASEAN Initiative in Malaysia.  “GREAT” stands for “Gender Responsive Economic Actions for the Transformation of Women.”  This initiative supports majority women-owned enterprises, women entrepreneurs, and women artisans in Southeast Asia who develop products and services under fair-employment and fair-trade conditions.

Adding women to the workforce, and to leadership positions, makes basic bottom line economic sense for companies and for societies.  We no longer have to work very hard to make the case for women’s inclusion: it is proven and it is real.  So how do we unlock this enormous potential?

First, governments must lead.  The US government is working to break down obstacles and provide opportunity for women and girls to use their energy, their passions, and their talents to be the best that they can be.

One of the specific things the United States is supporting with partner governments is the removal of legal barriers that prevent women from participating in the economy, such as tax structures that fail to treat women equally. Legal barriers are a very real and persistent challenge. For example, 79 countries have laws that restrict the types of jobs that women can do.

Governments need to act but we also need commitments from the private sector.

I was disheartened to learn something from a study USAID did as it begins to implement a workforce development program for youth in the Mekong region.  A survey of companies in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam showed that over 40% of employers report that the gender of an employee affects their selection for skilled labor positions.

In other words, they would prefer to hire men for more skilled work and women for unskilled or secretarial functions.  As a result, women participate in the skilled labor force at rates much lower than men in the Mekong region. If these mindsets changed, economies could grow even faster.

We also need to improve access to credit for women.  Often legal barriers and cultural norms inhibit women from accessing capital compared to men. This is not only a missed market opportunity for financial institutions, but also an enormous constraint on women’s ability to achieve the financial stability they need to grow a business, raise crops, or protect against shocks.

USAID has just entered a partnership with some of ASEAN’s largest banks to fund research grants to study how to improve access to capital for SMEs.  We will target part of this program to explore the particular issues women may face in Southeast Asia in accessing capital.

As we all know, 2015 is a significant year for ASEAN – it will come together even more closely as an economic community.  The goal of the ASEAN Economic Community is to make life better and easier for the people of ASEAN – including women. It will be a gradual process, but the AEC will mean more prosperity.  More integration will mean more opportunities and more economic growth.  It will mean an ASEAN can play an even larger role in securing regional peace and stability.

The United States has supported the AEC in a variety of ways.  The United States has spent millions of dollars supporting the implementation of the ASEAN Single Window, which will lessen paperwork and reduce costs for cross-border trade. In the past few years, we partnered with U.S. companies to train over 3,500 SME owners in all ten ASEAN countries to support economic development.

United States programs in ASEAN work to benefit ordinary citizens and support them in reaching their full potential, through training and expanding opportunities – both economically and professionally.

Promoting opportunities for women, and supporting economic integration are two of USASEAN’s top priorities, so I look forward to hearing from you about how we can do both, better.


Ambassador Nina Hachigian with YSEALI women and professionals.
Ambassador Nina Hachigian with YSEALI women and professionals.