It’s a man’s world. That’s something, for better or worse, women in Asia can tell you. Japan and South Korea underutilize women with little regard for how it constrains growth. The Philippines sends all too many of them abroad as domestics to ship money home and support an inefficient economy. A preference for boys in India and elsewhere leads to elective abortion of female fetuses. Indonesia and Malaysia face creeping Islamization, which can compel women to cover up and retreat from public life.
The consequences for China may be just as stark, not to mention depressing.
More than 40 years ago, Mao Zedong proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky.” Today, it’s more aspiration than fact. Women are barely represented in the top echelons of China’s government and the biggest state-owned companies. Boosting their role would invigorate industry and buttress the legitimacy of the Communist Party, which this week celebrates its 90th anniversary amid growing signs that economic growth may be at risk.
Gender discrimination isn’t a big issue among investors. The phenomenon doesn’t feed easily into stock valuations, bond yields or gross domestic product figures. Yet the negative implications are underappreciated, especially when you consider how readily it can be fixed.
Development economists have long linked female empowerment to faster economic growth, higher returns on investment, increased productivity, improved agricultural yields and more favorable demographics. For an industrializing nation to neglect women is akin to fighting with one limb tied behind your back. That’s unwise as China faces rising inflation and a widening rich-poor divide that could fan social upheaval and anti-regime sentiment.
The international scene is fraught with perils that require China to put an even higher premium on strategies for growth. The U.S. economy looks like its recovery is stalling. Europe may be even more fragile as China finds itself supporting euro-zone markets by using its deep pockets to buy sovereign debt there.
From the perspective of developed nations, little attention is paid to China’s gender issues. Instead, we see China’s 10 percent growth; a central government with remarkable discipline; $3 trillion of currency reserves; crane-bristling mega-cities; armies of bankers and executives working with single-minded purpose; scientists who develop supercomputers that rank among the world’s fastest; and legions of engineers capable of rerouting giant rivers like the Yangtze. We rarely consider the structural flaws.
In all of this, women are almost invisible. Blame it partly on a bureaucratic tradition in business and government that isn’t flexible enough to accommodate women who want to take time off to have a family. A job in Chinese government can mean a life of liquor-fueled official banquets where professional relationships are forged.
Only two women have been appointed governor of any of China’s 31 provinces and four biggest municipalities since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949; none are now serving. In the U.S., by contrast, 32 women have been elected governors of the 50 states in that time. Six members of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 21-person Cabinet (as well as posts with Cabinet rank) are female, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a vocal champion of women’s rights. In France, five of 15 full ministers are women. In China, Premier Wen Jiabao’s 35-member state council has four women.
The lack of female progress in the public sector belies successes in the private realm. Six of the world’s 19 self-made women billionaires as of last year were Chinese.
Matching that record in the public sector would serve China’s economy well as the country tries to transform itself from the world’s factory floor into a leader in services and technology. By failing to harness the full potential of half of the talent pool, China surely is limiting its growth possibilities.
China faces demographic challenges, too. Sex-ratio imbalances are a growing problem because sons are often preferred over daughters. By 2020, 30 million or more Chinese men of marrying age might be unable to find a mate. Sociologists call it China’s “testosterone glut.” What kinds of social stresses this will create are hard to predict.
Japan shows the failings of institutionalized sexism. Last week, the government gender-equality bureau recommended mandatory quotas to pull more women into public office. Yet the aging men who hold the reins of Japan Inc. would rather lose more ground than let more women into executive suites and parliamentary discussions.
China must go a different way if it wants to avoid the stagnation that besets Japan. Making its politics and corporate boardrooms less of an old boys’ club is crucial. China’s labor force is aging, and a fresh infusion of talent could help leaders plan for the future. It would create a more balanced, lively and sustainable economic and political system for China’s 1.3 billion people.
Folks are free to debate whether it really is a man’s world. What isn’t debatable is that gender discrimination is more than just unfair. It’s bad economics.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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