E-commerce is growing rapidly in Southeast Asia, but women are not always the full beneficiaries. Here is how the industry can become a pivotal factor of gender equality for Southeast Asian female workers.
E-commerce could boost economic recovery and impact the conditions of Southeast Asian women workers, according to a report from the International Corporation (IFC). There is a strong incidence of female entrepreneurs in the economies of the area. For instance, on Lazada’s e-commerce platform, about one-third of Indonesian businesses and two-thirds of businesses in the Philippines are women-owned. However, these companies tend to be smaller, have lower average sales, and have fewer employees.
The IFC, a member of the World Bank, is the largest global development institution. Last week it published the report Women and e-commerce in Southeast Asia, which observes the development trends of the digital economy in the region. The focus is on the driver of the post-pandemic recovery: the spread of online transactions. "In Southeast Asia, e-commerce became a lifeline for individuals' daily essentials as well as a natural business strategy pivot for vendors and brands when offline operations were affected by COVID-19 safety measures", said Chun Li, CEO of Lazada Group.
In general, we have observed ambivalent effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economies of Southeast Asia. On the one hand, it has blown away some sectors of traditional economies, which were substituted by the flourishing reality of digital entrepreneurship. Lockdowns and containment measures have required small and large businesses to adapt to a new model of work, production and consumption, where e-commerce has emerged.
On the other hand, the pandemic has exacerbated gender inequalities, , burdening Asian women workers much more than their male counterparts. This shows that technological progress is not a channel for social emancipation: precise political interventions are needed so that material (and digital) availability is converted into real opportunities, especially for women. Female participation in the future of work is listed among the United Nations sustainable development goals, which promote systemic action in support of socio-economic development that cannot be separated from the full involvement of the female workforce. At the regional level, many steps have been taken in terms of policies for female inclusion, but these efforts have not yet translated into progress towards a real increase in the economic and professional weight of Asian women. The most urgent challenges concern labour force participation, gender discrimination in employment, financial inclusion and representation in senior management positions.
Several considerations apply to the digital economy. The e-commerce market in Southeast Asia has tripled since 2015 and is expected to triple again by 2025. The IFC report focuses on how to broaden the beneficiary base of this digital boom and believes it is crucial to overcome discriminatory barriers that prevent women from fully participating in the benefits of the digital economy. The report suggests how e-commerce can offer a solution to the eternal trade-off between family and work, which women are often called upon to deal with. According to the Asian Development Bank, increasing female participation in the workforce and closing the wage gap would have a huge impact on the growth of the region in general: the estimated benefits have been quantified at $ 3.2 trillion in the economies of Asia-Pacific.
Southeast Asia is one of the few regions where the presence of women in the labour market is declining, but it has at least one feature in common with most economies in the world: the vast majority of the unpaid domestic work is done disproportionately by women. In the IFC report, there is the significant testimony of an entrepreneur who says: "My home was far from my workplace and my little one was still a child. Eventually, I decided to quit my full-time job. But I was used to working, so I started selling online”. An example that many others could follow.
If care work employs mostly women, and mostly for free, e-commerce can be a game-changer. It would guarantee more flexibility for Asian workers and allow them to emancipate themselves economically by running a business activity with leaner production models. On the other hand, without adequate public measures to support the substantial inclusion of women in the digital economy, the risk may be to create profitable digital services without questioning the structural discriminations that prevent women's full inclusion in the job market. Asian women workers may be asking for e-commerce as well as "bread and roses" (a song manifesto for the income and dignity of American workers at the beginning of the last century), but the lack of careful political intervention to accompany its development could be a missed opportunity for gender equality.