Everyone’s eyes are on Asia’s rise. China, once dismissed as poor and backward, is now the world’s second-largest economy. India, with its huge population, scientific prowess and entrepreneurial vitality, is another powerful engine of Asian growth.

Add to this Japan and South Korea’s formidable economies, plus Southeast Asia’s dynamism, and a picture emerges of rising wealth, confidence and leadership.

Yet, few women in Asia make it to the top. Social norms undervalue girls and women, with sex-selection abortions of an estimated 1.3 million girls per year in China and India alone.

Still, women have benefited from Asia’s economic development. According to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2011,” rising prosperity has narrowed gender inequality in many countries. Women are making progress in health, education, economic opportunity and political empowerment, which they can leverage for future leadership.

Furthermore, family and dynastic factors have helped to catapult women to the highest political posts. Indeed, Asia has had more female heads of state than any other region in the world, which, together with economic success for some, creates an impetus for change in perceptions of women’s role, status and capabilities.

Data indicators of women’s leadership in Asia, though limited, show that the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand are consistently among the top performers. With the addition of economic and occupational parameters — such as women in senior management positions, promotion rates, remuneration and wage equality — these countries are joined by Singapore, Mongolia, Thailand and Malaysia.

While South Asia performs worst in overall gender equality and women’s attainment, it comprises three of the top five countries in terms of political empowerment (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India). South Asian countries also lead in terms of women in Parliament (Nepal and Pakistan); women ministers (Bangladesh); and women leaders in subnational government (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). But being vaulted to leadership by family and dynastic connections is not a sign of greater gender equality. While affirmative action has significantly increased women’s political representation, limited political leadership gains have yet to translate into real benefits for women in general.

Moreover, while development has benefited women, the relationship between human development and female leadership is not directly proportional. Some of the Asian economies with the highest human development rankings, such as Japan and South Korea, are among the worst in terms of women in senior management, wage equality, remuneration and political empowerment. Singapore and Hong Kong, too, display significant gender gaps in leadership, despite high human development.

In Asia, many women — 70 percent in Japan, 53 percent in China and 46 percent in Singapore — simply do not make the transition from middle to senior management. Women need more systematic support to facilitate their choice to pursue high-powered careers without giving up their roles as mothers and caregivers. Significant improvement is needed in mentoring, parental leave, childcare and elder care, as well as more gender-equal retirement and pension plans.

Ultimately, entrenched social and cultural norms remain the most intractable obstacle to female leadership in Asia. A broad campaign is needed to educate people, change the valuation and perception of girls and women and give women a more equal voice — at home and in public — to facilitate their transition to leadership roles.

Education is only part of the solution. Affirmative action programs can expedite female representation in leadership, but they take time to affect deeply ingrained social norms. Over time, however, exposure to female leaders at the local level can reduce bias and boost the aspirations and educational achievement of young women, as is happening in India.

Governments, particularly in China and India, can step up efforts to end sex selection. More laws — and better enforcement — are needed to reduce domestic violence against women, and to increase women’s bargaining power through broader property ownership, better access to legal and other support services, and greater freedom to leave marriages.

But there is reason to be optimistic: In Pakistan and Indonesia, encouraging examples show how partnerships among government, police, women’s groups, paralegals and nongovernmental organizations can work to strengthen women’s voice and agency, and thus their potential to contribute more fully to society.

Furthermore, Asia’s governments can nurture female leadership in two areas of economic activity in which women already feature heavily: agriculture and entrepreneurship. To be sure, the work tends to be low in productivity and scale, and women are often pushed into such jobs by poverty. But governments should seize the opportunity to pursue policies that provide women in these sectors greater access to capital, skills training (for example, in budgeting and financial planning), technology and networks.

Economic development correlates positively with gender equality. But as the World Bank notes in its “World Development Report 2012,” gender equality is an independent value, not just an instrument for economic growth and efficiency. While the Bank highlights women’s progress in education, life expectancy and labor-force participation, it also describes continuing problems, including the excessive death rates of girls and women in low- and middle-income countries, educational disparities, uneven economic opportunities and unequal authority within and outside the home.

From birth, girls in Asia face significant obstacles to fulfilling their human potential — especially their potential for leadership. It is time to remove the barriers. Empowering Asia’s women will benefit them and enrich the entire region.

Astrid S. Tuminez is vice dean (research) of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Vishakha N. Desai is president of Asia Society. They have just released “Rising to the Top? A Report on Women’s Leadership in Asia.” © 2012 Project Syndicate

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