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APEC’s work for women's economic empowerment

“Any society that fails to harness the energy and creativity of its women is at a huge disadvantage in the modern world” – Tian Wei (China)

For the last two decades, women’s economic empowerment has been a key pillar of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation’s (APEC) work. As economic growth around the region has slowed, the organisation of economies has looked to groups with “untapped economic potential” – people who have faced barriers to full economic participation – to provide the energy and vision for future growth.

Being around half the population, women are an easy choice when it comes to injecting the Asia Pacific economy with the energy and productivity it needs now and in the years ahead.

This is even more so when looking at the impact COVID-19 has wrought on the regional economy as a whole, and on women’s economic realities in particular.

The APEC Secretariat notes, “if the consequences of limiting the participation of women in the workforce is measured in dollars and cents alone, the number can go up to an estimated $89 billion in the Asia Pacific”.

Leading up to this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD), we took a look at the key ways the 21 APEC economies are working together to lift the barriers faced by women, to enable them to thrive in the regional economy.

Our colleagues at Manatū Wāhine/the Ministry for Women, who lead New Zealand’s work in this area, have shared some reflections on APEC’s work to reduce barriers to women’s economic inclusion.

And to acknowledge the historic work of women throughout the region to improve women’s economic outlook, this blog is structured according to wisdom from women around the Asia-Pacific.

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made, it shouldn’t be that women are the exception” - Ruth Bader Ginsburg (USA)

A key focus of APEC’s inclusion work has been addressing the structures that hold back women’s full economic participation. Barriers like:

  • Who has access to credit to purchase goods or open a business, or:
  • A person’s gender dictating where they can and cannot work.

A 2019 review of APEC’s Women and the Economy Dashboard (more on this below) found:

  • Around the Asia-Pacific, access to credit is still restricted by gender and marital status in some countries. This directly impacts women’s financial inclusion and ability to rise up from poverty
  • Not all APEC economies allow women to work in “non-traditional sectors” such as mining and construction. As APEC reflects “this pigeonholing of women’s abilities constitutes a barrier as it hinders women’s entry to the labour market”.

Structural change could be understood as a change to the way things are normally done. In regards to women and the economy, this could include challenging norms like blocked access to credit because of a person’s gender, giving women access to greater financial resources.

So what is APEC doing about this?

“Gender parity is not just good for women, it’s good for societies” – Angelica Fuentes (Mexico)


Three key things you should know:

1. The Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy (PPWE)

The PPWE aims to “advance the economic integration of women in the APEC region for the benefit of all members, and to coordinate gender activities across APEC working groups”. This important partnership was established in 2011 with strong input from previous APEC work, along with the private sector.

New Zealand’s Renee Graham, Chair of the APEC PPWE adds: “PPWE is the lead platform to support APEC Senior Officials to place women at the centre of APEC’s inclusive and resilient recovery approaches to COVID-19. We know PPWE cannot do this alone.  Being open to new and different ways of collaborating across the full range of APEC work programmes is what the PPWE team in each economy has expertise in, and reports on, at each of our PPWE meetings.”

Read more about the PPWE here.

2. The La Serena Roadmap for Women and Inclusive Growth (2019 – 2030)

This Roadmap was developed in 2019 to provide concrete direction, and to catalyse policy actions across APEC to drive “greater inclusive economic development and participation of women in the Asia-Pacific”.

The Roadmap runs to 2030 and contains defined action areas and targets ranging from laws and policies to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex to improving the region’s gender balance in leadership positions. An Implementation Plan developed through 2020 outlines how the issues in the Roadmap will be picked up and actioned by the PPWE and across APEC’s other committees and working groups.

APEC PPWE Chair, Renee Graham says: “2021 is our first year of monitoring and reporting the La Serena Implementation Plan. Supporting the Plan is a Key Actions Framework (KAF), designed to encourage and capture initiatives across APEC fora and sub-fora that are practical and targeted. We look forward to receiving KAF reports by 18 June this year.”   

Read more about the Roadmap here.

3. The Women and the Economy Dashboard

A spokesperson for Manatū Wāhine / the Ministry for Women (NZ) says: “There is a popular expression: We measure what we treasure. Collecting the data, reporting it and using it are the fundamentals of embedding change. When we don’t ask for gender-disaggregated data, we are gender-blind, and the world and experiences of women and girls in it, tells us, their experiences are different from men’s.”

The Women and the Economy Dashboard is a game changer for policy makers, researchers and civil society. It is an “initiative that seeks to provide a snapshot of the status of women in APEC”, collecting data that can be disaggregated by sex from all the APEC economies.

The gender data gap has long been acknowledged as a detriment to women’s progress because it renders many of women’s unique experiences invisible. APEC is doing its bit to plug part of this gap with financial data, illuminating areas like access to credit and savings, the ability to start a business or own property.

Each piece of data helps build a more visible and evidence based picture of women’s lives, enabling researchers, policy writers and civil society to work in ways that more meaningfully respond to women’s needs.

Some findings from the most recent dashboard in 2019:

  • Of the 21 APEC economies, only 9 have laws against discrimination by lenders based on gender
  • And only 7 have laws against discrimination by creditors based on marital status
  • 18 economies penalize or prevent dismissal of pregnant women
  • But only 2 APEC economies consider family status an illegal job interview question
  • And only 8 have laws mandating equal pay for men and women doing work of equal value.

Read this infographic for an overview of key findings in 2019.

Or see the full Dashboard here

4. Women in the Economy Forum (WEF)

In September each year, APEC hosts a Women and the Economy Forum (WEF) bringing together Ministers, Government officials, civil society and business leaders to advance women’s economic empowerment. This is an important space for maintaining APEC’s momentum for greater inclusion.

A spokesperson for Manatū Wāhine /the Ministry for Women (NZ) says: “Embedding long-term equitable outcomes for women and girls in our COVID recovery efforts will continue to be the focus of our energies. The WEF Ministerial meeting we envisage will be an opportunity for APEC economies to reaffirm actions that contribute to progressing women’s inclusive growth.”

The 2020 WEF, hosted by Malaysia noted how COVID had “aggravated pre-existing economic and social inequalities, and heightened the prevalence and severity of issues confronting women and girls from diverse backgrounds”.

As we look ahead, and in particular as New Zealand leads the process to develop APEC’s plan of work for the next twenty years, the economic empowerment of women will be a key focus.

- APEC 2021