Holding Up Half The Sky

By Dr. Shen Goh

There is a saying that women hold up half the sky. In China, this phrase originally meant promoting gender equality by giving women the same rights as men. In the West, however, this phrase has come to mean fighting gender oppression by solving problems that stop women from realising their full potential in developing countries. Both recognise the importance of educating girls.

“Because real equality in the workplace and the home will make all of us better off. When we use the full talents of the population, our countries and companies are more productive.” – Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook, Found & Board Chair, Lean In

The importance of educating girls are often measured economically. Poor families struggling to pay school fees may prioritise educating their sons instead of their daughters. Even a family that can afford school fees may still decide not to educate a daughter due to the opportunity costs of schooling a girl who could be doing housework, providing childcare for younger siblings, and bringing in supplemental income instead. And even well-off families that do not depend on their daughters to contribute to the family’s welfare may still feel that it is pointless to invest in someone who will marry into another family.

Making such decisions based on economic costs is short-sighted and narrow-minded, as doing so fails to consider the economic benefits in the long run and to the country. How can a country develop when it is missing the GDP of half of its population?

The Asia Development Bank has reported in ‘Women and Labour Markets in Asia: Rebalancing for Gender Equality’ how the absence of women in the labour market is costing certain countries in Asia USD47 billion annually. History has shown, and the reality remains, that a country’s fulfilment of its economic potential depends on its women’s realisation of their full potential.

Some countries are learning belatedly that gender equality is necessary to their economic development: Peru improved  property rights in the 1990’s to encourage women to operate their own businesses; Japan expanded childcare services in 2013 because having women join the labour market would diversify its aging work force; Liberia passed the Decent Work Act in 2015 to encourage women to transition from informal labour to the formal economy; India mandated paid maternity leave in 2017 because having women transition to the formal economy would increase its GDP; and, Saudi Arabia permitted women to drive in 2018 in part to increase the female work force in order to offset its shrinking oil revenues.

Because the world has been without the full benefit of the talent, creativity and ideas of half its population for far too long.” – Michael Crow, President, Arizona State University

The importance of educating girls can and should also be measured socially. A woman who is educated and employed will be a more informed voter, which can translate into more social funding for healthcare and education for the country. A housewife with literacy and maths skills will be a better resource manager, which can mean better nutrition and sounder finances for the family. And a stay-at-home mother who has knowledge and experience will be a stronger role model, which can lead to more emotionally sound and socially adept children.

Recognising such benefits is long overdue. After all, should a country be measured only by its GDP? The United Nations has reported in ‘The World’s Women 2015: Trends and Statistics’ how higher education levels for women can mean longer lives, better health, higher pay, more decision-making power, and less violence towards women. It is no longer enough for a country to expect its women to hold up half the sky; it must now teach its women to reach for the sky. Then, and only then, will the sky be the limit for a country.

Dr. Shen Goh is a Canadian lawyer lecturing on business law at Curtin Malaysia’s Faculty of Business. Prior to Curtin Malaysia, she was a lecturer in the Faculty of Law of York University, Canada. Her research interests include intellectual property, branding and international trade.