The future of women in Asia’s workforce

Anu Madgavkar, partner in McKinsey’s Mumbai office, discusses how the potential for women in Asia to raise their economic position is great, but automation will present unique challenges for women in the workforce.

What are the top three most disruptive forces shaping women in the workforce 10 years out?

Video

Women in the workforce in Asia face tremendous opportunities, but also significant challenges. Let’s look at the starting point first. Women in Asia contribute about 36 percent of Asia’s GDP, which is in line with the global average, but there’s a wide range. For China, this is higher, at about 41 percent; for India, this is lower than 20 percent.

So, there is a lot of scope for women to actually raise their economic contribution and role in the region. But the potential is very high because we think that, by 2025, women in Asia could contribute an additional $4.5 trillion of GDP, which is 12 percent higher than Asia’s GDP at that point in time.

And there’s something there for every country. India has the biggest relative potential at 18 percent of GDP, but it’s high for China as well, at 13 percent. And even for Japan and Singapore and some of the more mature economies, five to six percent GDP uplift is possible just by bringing more women into the workforce, and helping them be engaged in more productive work.

Asia is also one of the most dynamic regions when it comes to showing the world that the needle can be moved in terms of raising the role of women. To give you a few examples, in China, the explosion in the tech sector has actually made China home to 114 of the world’s 150 self-made women billionaires. So, China really has a disproportionate share of very successful women in the tech sector.

In India, 160 million unbanked women were actually provided banking accounts in just a three-year period. So, a basic need like financial inclusion has been bridged very dramatically. So, there’s dynamism, there’s change, but there’s also challenges. The proliferation of digital and automation technologies are going to fundamentally change the nature of work. And this will impact women in Asia.

There will be job displacement due to automation. For an economy like Japan, up to 20 percent or more of women will have to find new kinds of work, as part of what they’re doing right now actually gets substituted by intelligent technology that does a lot of the cognitive functions that human beings do today. In China and India, up to 10 percent of the female workforce would need to make that adjustment. Now, there will be new job opportunities as well, across a range of sectors, but women aren’t that well placed in some of them—professional and scientific and technical occupations in particular.

Overall, it’s going to be an era of massive transitions. Women are going to have to reskill themselves with a new set of skills that are relevant in future. For example, in the healthcare sector, women who work there will need to spend much less time on routine clerical types of activities because you’re going to have patients self-registering themselves on mobiles as they get into hospitals, and you’re going to have AI-led tools that do some of the diagnostics.

But the healthcare worker is going to have to spend a lot more time actually interacting with patients, with stakeholders, employing a whole lot of interpersonal skills and higher order problem solving skills. So, these transitions will be challenging and they have to be made in very large numbers. In India and China, you know, 10-40 million workers will actually have to make such transitions even for them to stay where they are, and to stay in the workplace.

How should CEOs be responding to these forces as they think about their business strategies for the next decade?

CEOs should take action to actually help women transition into the future of work in Asia. And the biggest reason for that is companies stand to be major beneficiaries of this. Today, the dropout rates are actually quite high. So, we have 40-45 percent of women entering companies in Asia. But at the C-suite level and at senior management levels, this ratio drops to about 25 percent in Singapore, but as low as four percent and even lower than that in Japan and India.

So, that is a huge loss of talent to companies. And to address this, CEOs need to do something. We’ve learned that top-level CEO commitment to narrowing gender inequality or inequality for women is crucial to helping companies make this transition.

And based on that top-level commitment, companies are doing many innovative things that others could learn from and do. So, for example, in Australia, some companies are reinventing their whole operating model that then allows women, for example, to work out of home and also step out to a small regional business center or regional mall where an office is set up for them. So, this actually helps women who find it difficult to commute on a regular basis over long distances. They can actually work out of home, as well as from a regional center.

Companies in Australia are also experimenting with things like job sharing, where women can work four-hour shifts in rotation and contractors can chip in for the rest of the time. So, basically models that boost and make available more flexibility for women is going to be quite important to capturing this opportunity. And companies can do this.

The other thing that companies can do is to actually work with stakeholders, particularly in the area of reskilling, and particularly for digital and technological skills. And here, there are many very interesting partnerships and collaborative efforts that we’re seeing across the region, and CEOs can do more of this.

So, for example, in China, the All Women’s Federation is working with a range of tech companies to actually boost tech-based skills and entrepreneurship for women. In India, companies like Google and Tata Trusts are actually working on massive women’s digital literacy programs in India’s villages. In Indonesia, what we’ve seen is that the largest e-commerce platforms are cultivating women and training them.

And women actually have a disproportionately high share of businesses on online marketplaces. Something like 35 percent of online businesses are actually female-owned in Indonesia, relative to only 15 percent in the offline world. So, by collaborating with a broader set of stakeholders, women’s groups, social and self-help groups, companies, trade unions, the tech world—these partnerships and collaborations can actually help women and help these national economies in Asia capture more of the economic opportunity.

Related Articles