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Pandemic widens gender gap across Asia

India and Indonesia tumble in WEF ranking; Japan and South Korea inch up

A woman walks in a New Delhi market in September. India's gender gap ranking fell more places than any other Asian nation in the World Economic Forum's latest report.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- The pandemic is widening gender inequality across Asia, the World Economic Forum said in a new report, signaling that the growing gap between the sexes is as important an issue as rebuilding COVID-battered economies.

The WEF published on Wednesday its Global Gender Gap Report 2021, which tracks progress toward gender equality in terms of economy, politics, education, and health.

The Geneva-based organization estimates it will now take 135 years for the world to achieve gender parity. Before the pandemic, it said it would take 99 years.

"The pandemic is likely to have a scarring effect on future economic opportunities for women, risking inferior re-employment prospects and a persistent drop in income," the report said. "Gender-positive recovery policies and practices can tackle those potential challenges."

The WEF said that women experienced both higher unemployment rates and slower reentry into employment amid the pandemic. Women also tended to bear the brunt of housework and child care.

The organization warned that the disparity in economic opportunities between men and women could further widen even after the pandemic, as female representation remains low in many "jobs of tomorrow" such as cloud computing and engineering.

"Existing disparities may have widened amid the COVID-19 pandemic," the report said.

India fell further in the rankings than any other Asian nation, dropping 28 places to 140th out of 156 countries.

The South Asian nation's scores decreased in three out of four criteria, but deteriorated most in political empowerment as the share of female ministers declined from 23% to 9%.

Female labor force participation is also lagging in India, with only 22.3% of women being active in the work market. In terms of health and survival, India ranks among the bottom five countries in the world due to an imbalance in its sex ratio at birth and a low healthy life expectancy.

India is far from alone in experiencing a rapid deterioration.

Indonesia dropped 16 places to 101st spot. This is mostly due to widening inequality in economic participation and opportunity -- the proportion of women in senior roles halved from 54.9% to 29.8% in just one year.

Inequality is also rife in Indonesia's labor market, with 81.8% of employed women working in the informal sector. The pandemic dealt a blow to the sector but many of these women struggled to get social security payments.

Many other countries in Asia-Pacific retreated in the rankings, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, China, Malaysia, Australia, and the Philippines. This highlights the contrast between Western countries and Asia.

The U.S., for example, climbed to 30th, up 23 places from last year. The report estimated that the gender gap can be closed in 52 years in Western Europe and 62 years in North America, while it will take 165 years in East Asia and the Pacific and 195 years in South Asia.

Japan and South Korea's rankings both inched up.

Japan, whose poor standing was highlighted recently after the former chief of the Tokyo Olympics made sexist remarks, rose one place to 120th. The country made improvements in political empowerment and economic participation and opportunity, but still had poor female representation in politics and management roles.

South Korea improved six places to 102nd spot, mainly due to improvements in political empowerment after more women were represented in parliament and ministerial positions. The country's scores in economic participation and opportunity also improved, meaning that more women are able to access the labor market as well as a fairer wage.

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