10 Questions with Jane Parker, Marian Baird, Noelle Donnelly, and Rae Cooper



Q1: This is a big topic. How did the project begin?

The book traverses a range of themes with particular regard to globalisation, technological development, sustainability and demographic dynamics. It evolved from a regional United Nations’ Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls workshop in 2020 involving several of the book’s editors. In the book, we seek to drill deeper into the experiences and perceptions of working women in 10 countries in the Asia Pacific region. As well as the four main themes above, each chapter contributor looks at issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and provides recommendations for future policy and practice. An editorial introduction adds cross-national analysis, culminating with cross-level implications and recommendations.

Q2: Is unpaid work covered in the research?

Unpaid work is a key feature in each chapter as women have always engaged in — and continue to undertake the bulk of — such work in their home and community. The pandemic context has also underlined the significance of women’s contribution in this respect.

Q3: How did you decide which countries to include?

We were keen to reflect both the shared and the unique experiences of working women in a wide array of settings. We wanted to cover very small and large countries; those with advanced and emerging economies; nations with an informal sector that is the dominant employer for women as well as others where it is not; countries with a range of political ideologies and faiths; and so on. It also provides insights on working women from countries where there is a significant body of research and others where this is less the case. It is thus a rich exploration of 10 ‘case’ countries rather than representative of all countries in the region. We also wanted to provide country profiles that were informed by scholars, practitioners, activists and/or trade unionists.

Q4: The experiences of working women are vastly different, but are there similarities?

Unpaid work is a major phenomenon for many women, including those undertaking paid work, across the region. In terms of demographic changes, ageing populations and declining fertility rates are represented in many of the countries examined in the book, though nations vary in their provision of universal early child education and care systems which help women to engage in decent work and/or reproduce. During crises or otherwise, varying national workscapes contribute to challenges for working women. For instance, the sizeable informal economy of developing or large nations provides vital work opportunities for many women but the precarity of much of this work shows up an absence of regulatory protection (including that for personal safety and social security).

Q5: It is a challenge to move from research and analysis to practical programmes for change, but your book takes up that challenge.

We wanted to provide a key repository of information and insights on women’s experiences of work in various national and sub-national settings, especially for countries that are often excluded from academic texts and analysis. We also felt that it is critical to translate into workable recommendations for policy and practice — particularly given the glacial, and sometimes regressive, developments in gender equity in and beyond the workplace. Our contributing authors’ proposals underscore that much can be done to protect and extend measures designed to improve the standards and fairness of working women’s — and by extension, their family and community’s — circumstances.

Q6: Have things got better or worse for women over the last 20 years?

In some cases, the change has been for the better, but not all. At the same time, there have been dramatic changes in the setting in which women live, work and care, and we highlight that dynamic context as an important part of our work. Attention to women’s economic position and the importance of women’s labour to national economies has greatly increased and this has drawn greater attention to the role of paid and unpaid care and work; regulation around personal safety; discrimination at work; and the gendered nature of the labour market. The rising interest among policy makers and governments in women’s economic empowerment has also drawn attention to the high (and increasing) rates of domestic and family violence against women and how women’s personal safety and physical security is dependent on economic security. 

Q7: What has been the impact of Covid-19?

Many women lost incomes and jobs, and simultaneously had to provide more unpaid care in their families and communities. The pandemic revealed deep structural problems and inequities in where, when and how women work, as well as in the policies and institutions that regulate their work. The book also reveals the depth of dependence that countries have on women to provide both formal and informal care.

The closure of national borders to stem the spread of Covid-19 and the labour shortages that many product markets subsequently experienced highlight the fragile nature of migration-fed labour markets, especially in low-paid health and care industries. In countries where welfare supports are declining, women need to work harder to avoid poverty.

Optimistically, the pandemic provided an opportunity to reset policy and to include women and their needs in the development of new policies and practices at local, industry, national and international levels.

Q8: Was there a particular aspect of the research that caught your attention?

All of the chapters reinforced the importance of care work provided by women and the need to value care in an economic way, to reward women for the care they provide and to provide mechanisms that redistribute the resources for care more equitably. The importance of sustainability to women and the need to take action on climate change and environmental degradation come through strongly. Our authors also show that technological change has a strong gendered dimension and that it plays out in uneven ways. In some countries, technological change has opened up opportunities for paid employment for women; in others, we see an imprinting of gendered division and discrimination which ultimately disadvantages women.

Q9: What are the main barriers to equity in the workplace?

The research points to a number of major barriers, the first of which concerns women’s access to jobs in the formal economy. The contributing authors show just how large and dispersed the informal sector is in different national settings, and how under-regulated and under-studied women’s role in informal work is. Another major barrier relates to the need for more governments and employers to regularly collect gender-based data to understand the extent of discrimination and inequality in the labour market. A third (and perhaps the most challenging) barrier is around the attitudes about women and the under-valuing of their work, including unpaid and care work that they provide. This needs to be addressed and changed. A further challenge concerns the need to implement change at all levels and not just for a select group or class. Combined, these barriers serve not only to prevent equity in women’s workplaces but can encourage or reinforce further inequity.  

Q10: Is technology a positive or negative for working women?

Technological advances can be very positive for working women (e.g. providing greater access to new flexible forms of work, and enabling women to continue working through the pandemic), expanding markets and broader networks. However, perhaps more worryingly, it can also be used to exclude women from more highly rewarded sectors of the labour market. Women’s occupational positioning means that many work in industries susceptible to automation, with little attention from government on their ‘just transition’ into more secure and sustainable employment. The rise of gig work and spread of algorithmic management, especially in care work, serves to further undermine and devalue women’s work. It is also clear that male-dominated designs will have long-lasting impacts on women’s progress at work. Overwhelmingly, the chapters provide a cautionary note of the impact of technological developments on women’s work.