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Before you get complacent that the growing discussions on feminism have finally sealed the gap between genders, this news will show you how much work still needs to be done.

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014, which was released last week, the Philippines was the only country in Southeast Asia that made it to the top 10. (Singapore was a distant second at 59, while Lao PDR and Thailand trailed behind at 60 and 61, respectively). And while the Philippines deserves to be commended for landing the ninth spot among 142 countries, its performance this year has actually fallen by four places from 2013.

With Southeast Asia mostly composed of developing countries, the prevalence of gender disparity is detrimental to the region’s economic growth. And not only are unequal employment opportunities holding women back — it also keeps the men in their lives poor, as the International Labor Organization asserts that both paid and unpaid women’s work is the single most important factor in keeping households out of poverty.

World Economic Forum Founder Klaus Schwab reiterated the need to empower women worldwide: “Women represent one half of the global population — they deserve equal access to health, education, influence, earning power and political representation. Their views and values are critical for ensuring a more prosperous and inclusive common future. Humanity’s collective progress depends on it.”

But it takes more than just lobbying for laws and picketing on the streets to change long-held beliefs. Faced with discrimination often cloaked in both well-meaning and outright discriminatory statements, women advocates are claiming the thought battlefield that is the internet — calling out misogyny as it happens, whether consciously or unconsciously, among families and friends.

Also Read: For Asia’s gay professionals, technology is equality’s champion

Despite successes, discrimination against women is still prevalent online and offline
In May this year, the killing spree in Isla Vista, California fuelled the online grassroots campaign #YesAllWomen, which rallied women across the world to share personal stories of abuse and sexism. The campaign was countered by a response called #NotAllMen, a rebuttal which TIME Magazine argues only serves to diminish the impact of the campaign, meant to “shift the focus of a discussion instead of engaging with it”.

With the online world still talking about #YesAllWomen, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and celebrity Emma Watson announced the launch of the HeForShe campaign, challenging men to take up the cause and fight for women’s rights. During her speech at the UN headquarters in New York, Watson enjoined: “I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too, reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

(While applauding Watson’s support, Mia Mackenzie of Black Girl Dangerous meanwhile stated what she found problematic about Watson’s speech: “The underlying message here is that women deserve equity and equality because of our relationships to men. Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women’s equality because mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don’t already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings. It encourages men to think of women always and only in relation to themselves, as if our pseudo-humanity is only an after-thought of men’s real humanity. The truth is that women are whole, complete people, regardless of our status in the lives of men. This is what men should hear, over and over again. This is what everyone should hear, every day.”)

As of this writing, 187,785 people have signed the pledge on the HeForShe website. 

Yet despite the tremendous attention feminism is getting, men continue to perpetrate harassment and discrimination, even in places where one would think people would be enlightened enough to stop those incidents. Just recently, a video which made rounds on the internet showed how a woman experienced 108 instances of cat-calling, ogling, and stalking by strangers during the 10-hour social experiment where she walked around New York.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek also reported that female workers in the US are paid only 77¢ for every dollar their male colleagues make, and a mere 4.2 per cent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women. 

But we need not go away from home to see this happening. Women in Asia and the Pacific are financially disadvantaged as well. Statistics collected by the Asian Development Bank highlighted that only “30 per cent of women in Asia and the Pacific are in non-agriculture wage employment, with only 20 per cent in South Asia — the lowest among the world’s regions.” Aside from this, “nearly 50 per cent of women in South Asia and over 60 per cent in the Pacific Islands are still concentrated in agriculture. Unpaid work on family agricultural enterprises accounts for 34 per cent of informal employment for women in India”.

Also Read: What is the future of work for Southeast Asia’s Millennials?

Providing better opportunities for Southeast Asian women is crucial
As a step to empower women entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and ASEAN Connectivity through Trade and Investment Project (ACTI), with the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs of Vietnam, launched this year the ASEAN Women’s Entrepreneurship Network (AWEN) in Hanoi, Vietnam.

AWEN, a regional network of women entrepreneurs’ associations, aims to be a forum where women can share best business practices as well their knowledge on policies and socio-political issues. This could just be a good solution to resolve the International Labor Organisation’s observation of how the entrepreneurial capabilities of Asian women were vastly untapped, with only one per cent of all women workers in Asia running their own business with paid employees.

Yet, there is a light at the end of the tunnel: a recent Grant Thorton International report revealed that 49 per cent of CEOs in Thailand are women. Meanwhile, 39 per cent of senior managers in the Philippines were women, followed by Thailand (36 per cent), Vietnam (33 per cent).

We, at Freelancer, want to raise those numbers even further. We know how crucial work opportunities are in empowering women in the Southeast Asian region. Three of the top 10 fastest-growing countries on our website are from the region (the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam) — we understand how we can assist more women in advancing themselves professionally.

We have received stories how female freelance professionals have been helped by our platform, and we plan to make this a reality for more women. Architect Anna Lee Salas, who once worked for a large mall chain in the Philippines, now earns 60 per cent of her total income from Freelancer. She acknowledges the difficulty for women architects like her in the male-dominated field, sharing, “There are no challenges for women architects online. I think the clients like females better because they have sharper eyes and more creative than men.”

Freelancer’s Regional Director for North America, New Zealand and Oceania Nikki Parker, who was recently hailed as one of Australia’s top 10 most powerful women in technology, cheers on women professionals like her. In her Huffington Post interview, she said, “There are many challenges that women face in the workplace, and these issues have been widely published and debated. In my opinion, it is essential that these challenges must not be used as an excuse for failure… There will always be challenges along the way, this is inevitable, but I look forward to the enormous satisfaction and self-fulfillment of overcoming them and succeeding despite them.”

Of course, we understand that the private sector can only do so much. Creating stronger policies and legislation to ensure gender equality is still of utmost necessity. With the ASEAN integration looming, it is time for all of us to take measures to resolve this — or else face a greater gender divide.

The views expressed are of the author, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them.

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