Female empowerment. Gender parity. Women’s advancement in the workplace. The topics du jour that dominate both media headlines and the hallways of corporate America are an equally common thread in the daily dialogue of enterprising women across Asia.
The continent accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population (4.4 billion people), and is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, namely China and India, boasting an average growth rate of approximately seven percent.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Asia currently contributes 40 percent of global GDP and will generate nearly two-thirds of global growth in the next few years. Its steady economic ascent for the past 50 years has outpaced North America and Western Europe. China, on average, grew more than seven percent a year with India clocking in growth at more than five percent annually.
Amidst this heady growth narrative, communities across the continent are undergoing seismic shifts in the ways its women contribute to economic development. Nowhere is this visceral transformation more apparent than in Asia’s major urban centers and financial hubs, where the emphasis on women’s ascension into leadership roles and their increasing participation in the labor force is especially pronounced. Hong Kong welcomed its first female Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, this year on the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to China. In February 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai (arguably the Middle East’s most cosmopolitan city), appointed seven women to his 29 member cabinet, placing them as high-ranking ministers leading some of the most critical city-state initiatives, such as the World Expo 2020.
For decades, women in major global financial hubs like Dubai, Mumbai, and Hong Kong have been hard at work, often hustling behind the scenes. They have taught in schools, performed surgeries, crunched the numbers, answered phones, and often pitched in with family business.
My mother, all of 19, landed in the “desert” that was Dubai in 1977 soon after marrying my father, and just as quickly entered the workforce with her first “foreign” job at an international French bank, where she worked for nearly 40 years. As jobs go, it was a huge opportunity back then for a small-town girl. My parents, both from Mangalore in India’s coastal southwestern belt, were among the hundreds of expatriate Indians that migrated to high-wage economies after India’s independence, mostly to the Arab Gulf countries flush with the discovery of oil, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
The seventh of eight siblings, Mom pursued a path entirely her own, making the most of the cards she was dealt. Unlike virtually all of her other siblings who chose to become teachers like my maternal grandfather; my mother, faced with the knowledge that my grandmother (then widowed) was unable to afford her college tuition, opted for short courses in typing and secretarial training after graduating from high school, practical lessons that would help her get her foot in the door for that coveted “office job.”
I remember when I was very young, my mother stood out in stark contrast to the mothers of other children I knew. While she was pregnant with me, she took Arabic lessons and cultivated a deft skill with the language that she maintains to this day. She was the first mom on our block to cut her hair short and learn how to drive.
For thousands of women from that baby-boomer generation, entering the workforce was less about pursuing your passion and seeking personal independence, and more about establishing a path to financial security and family stability. It’s a lesson that’s embedded among countless urban Asian women from Generation X and the newly dubbed “Xennials.”
For Hong Kong-born-and-raised Athena Ng, growing up with both parents working in the 1980s was the norm. Her father was a corporate lawyer while her mother worked in hospitality, and from an early age, she knew she would one day be a working woman too.
Professional opportunities for women, who now outnumber men in Hong Kong, continue to be plentiful in the Asian metropolis, buoyed by a resilient economy and the easy availability of affordable nannies and daycare. Hong Kong in many ways epitomizes the words of China’s revolutionary godfather Mao Zedong, who once proclaimed that women held up half the sky.
“I loved to read as a child and was incredibly talkative. They called me ‘Miss Dictionary,’” recalls Ng. “I thought I’d follow in my father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, but since my mom worked in finance, from an early age she influenced me towards pursuing mathematics.” Despite not having a natural aptitude for numbers, Ng credits her excellent teachers for helping her cultivate her skill in the subject, one that proved vital in her corporate finance career.
For both Ng and myself, as is the case for most young Asian children growing up, our education was of paramount importance. Academic excellence was expected and encouraged (although not necessarily demanded). My natural affinity for literature and the arts was lovingly cultivated, and even my extended family fawned over my fledgling talents, having never known anyone in the D’Souza clan with a love for writing poems, acting, and painting. This unflinching support inspired me to apply to some of the best journalism schools in America in the hopes of becoming the next Christiane Amanpour.
Ng, who eventually attended the University of Virginia, recalls her parents being quite understanding of her wishes to experiment with her major, although it was a short-lived endeavor. “I knew I had to come back to Hong Kong after university, so after two weeks of trying a philosophy major, and realizing how much writing was involved, it was finance for me!” She graduated from UVA’s School of Commerce in just three years, knowing that her parents needed to save every penny of tuition money that they could.
Ng briefly worked in the U.S. before returning to Hong Kong to try her luck in investment banking, where she found ample opportunities to make her mark. “It was a case of good timing,” she recalls. It was the mid-2000s, soon after the U.K. handed Hong Kong’s sovereignty back to China, and Chinese companies were eager to get listed on the Hang Seng index and secure growth capital. At this nascent stage, Ng also began making savvy property investments in the lucrative Hong Kong market. She credits her mother with inculcating this financial wisdom in her.
Like many other women raised by working moms, our notion of money and financial independence is deeply rooted in the words and ways of our matriarchs. “Even if you don’t want to work full-time, you must always do something that keeps you busy in a good way and makes you some money”: the line my mother repeated to me over the years. “Don’t depend on anyone to finance you and your life, not even your husband if you’re married one day. It’s too much pressure in today’s world for a man to be responsible for making all the money. What if he meets with an accident or, God forbid, dies? You can’t just find a job overnight, and you may find there’s no one to help you, not even family or friends. At the end of the day, you can only depend on yourself.”
It’s a lesson that rang true in my mother’s case, when my father met with a serious car accident that derailed our plans to emigrate to the United States and kept him bedridden for six months. I was around three years old at the time and my brother, all of one. It was Mom who kept things feeling normal at home, despite attending to both her job and her convalescing husband. At the time, I was simply happy to have my father at home, understanding little of the pressure that our mother must have felt.
On the occasional trips my parents make back to Mangalore, their conversations with old friends always turn to their amazement at how the India they left in search of economic opportunity has changed so dramatically. The IMF has predicted that India will overtake Germany as the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2022, aided by economic reforms and a substantial young population.
Ironically, while female literacy, educational enrollment, and career opportunities are rising for urban Asian women, many women are choosing to shift their career focus or step out of the rat race altogether in favor of raising their families. A March 2017 report by the World Bank reveals that rising income levels and stability in families are disincentivizing Indian women from joining the labor force. India today has lower levels of female workforce participation than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, ranking 127th on the gender inequality index and 108th on the global gender gap index. As many as 19.6 million women—equivalent to the population of Romania—dropped out of the workforce between 2004 and 2012, of which rural women accounted for 53 percent, the report said.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the facts are anything but rosy. Research reveals that if women’s participation in labor markets in the MENA equaled that of men’s, the regional GDP could rise by 47 percent over the next decade, and MENA could realize $600 billion in economic impact annually ($2.7 trillion by 2025).
Another factor impacting female workforce participation and acceptance of leadership roles is the pervasive cultural expectation of what “success” as a woman equates to: typically a state of being based on marriage and motherhood. “I feel my mother could have achieved a lot more in her career if she wasn’t also obliged to take care of her children and the home,” shares Ng. “She had a job just like my father, but the difference was that the onus of taking care of the kids’ homework and making sure things at home ran smoothly fell on her, which is the norm in Chinese culture even today,” shares Ng. She believes that even many of her peers today will leave their top-shelf degrees and ambitious early careers behind to have children, or at the very least will settle for jobs that don’t intrude on their domestic life.
Alternative aspirations, ambitions, and visions for the Asian female identity are typically either criticized or marginalized, although the narrative is slowly changing. Never in recent memory has the focus on female inclusion in every aspect of the economy been more pronounced and urgent. And on trend. In February 2017, Nike launched a campaign that spread like wildfire across the Middle East, championing women athletes from throughout the Arab world who are blazing their own trails and even making waves globally, like Zahra Lari, a UAE figure skater who will be the first Arab woman to participate in the Winter Olympics. Portrayals of Asian and Middle Eastern women thriving in fields traditionally considered “unfeminine” have clearly struck a chord.
Politically, several governments are putting money where their mouth is. In May 2017, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—two leading economies in the Arabian Gulf—pledged a combined $100 million to a World Bank billion-dollar fund for women entrepreneurs that was the brainchild of Ivanka Trump.
In the Middle East, women in STEM, gender diversity, and the gender pay gap in the workforce remain hot-button subjects in the mainstream media narrative. The intention to change is widely discussed and some initiatives have already borne success.The Saudi Ministry of Labor launched a special program to increase the number of Saudi women in the workforce “to 28 percent by 2020,” and some studies show positive signs for female workforce inclusion, with the number of women in the private sector increasing by 145 percent between December 2012 and October 2016.
Research widely emphasizes the importance of female entrepreneurship in unlocking exponential gains in sustainable socio-economic development in the developing world. And many urban Asian women for whom joining the workforce may have once been a de-facto route a few decades earlier are bravely venturing into new terrain. One in five startups in Asia is female-led, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“I’ve started to ask myself whether I’m settling for the safe path,” says Ng. “In Hong Kong, I see so many more women than men, especially millennial women, foregoing family expectations of landing a stable job and trying their luck at entrepreneurship. I’m beginning to think of taking my career in a different direction too.”
The future indicates an uphill yet rewarding journey. As generations of working women take inspiration from the likes of Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and Apple’s newly appointed Managing Director of China, Isabel Ge Mahe, entrepreneurial self-starters are also founding businesses with guts and gusto. In fact, preconceived cultural expectations can actually be a blessing in disguise. “Chinese society places such heavy expectations on men to be financially sound that it gives women the leeway to fail,” says Ng. “And we are taking advantage of that and proving them wrong!”
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Iris Schomaker explores motifs that have a strong iconic or archetypical power: certain animals, like foxes, cats, or horses, as well as mountains and waterfalls. Her work is figurative with an abstract aspect, achieved through precise composition and reduction of form and color. Among her inspirations are Chinese and Japanese ink drawings and wood prints as well as graphic novels and jazz from the 30s to the 60s.