This is a special year for the Asia Society because it not only marks the organization’s 60th anniversary, but also the 10th anniversary of Asia 21, a community of young leaders established by the Society to address challenges and create a shared future for the Asia-Pacific region. I feel fortunate to have been chosen as an Asia 21 Young Leader, in the inaugural Class of 2006.
Today more than ever, a “shared future” for the Asia-Pacific and indeed for the world continues to involve the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The U.S. has always been a pioneer and leader in this field. An example, among many, was the creation of women’s colleges in the U.S. as early as the 19th century in response to a need for advanced education for women.
Over the years, the U.S. influence on gender equality has spread across the Asia-Pacific. For my native country of Japan, the greatest impact is perhaps manifested in its constitution. In a large part due to the efforts of Austrian-born American Beate Strota Gordon – later a director of arts and culture at the Asia Society – a powerful clause on gender equality was included in the post-war Japanese Constitution, almost 70 years ago. No doubt Gordon’s education at Mills College, one of the oldest colleges for women in the U.S., helped shape her vision on women’s equal participation in society.
Yet gender equality and the lack of it continue to be a global challenge. As for the only two Asian OECD member countries: Japan and South Korea ranked at 101 and 115, respectively.
The silver lining here is that with so much room for improvement in Asia, the upside is great, and in turn will lead to a better world as a whole. McKinsey recently reported that if women participated in the economy to the same extent as men, the annual global GDP could increase by as much as 26 percent by 2025, compared with a situation where nothing changed. The greatest benefit would be in India and the rest of South Asia, where such a change could increase GDP by 60 percent in India and by 48 percent in the rest of South Asia.
The Asia Society has long recognized the importance of gender equality working in several ways to advocate for women’s empowerment in this region. The Society has run and hosted conferences on women’s leadership, hosted major public events with leaders as diverse as Indra Nooyi, Gloria Steinem, Ruchira Gupta and Aung San Suu Kyi. In the last two years pioneering women Malala Yousafzai, Chanda Kochhar and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy have been among those honored as the Society’s Asia Game Changers.
Meanwhile, our Asia 21 network has played its part running task forces on gender equality, based upon the firm belief that economies will grow dramatically in the Asia-Pacific through the optimization of girls and women.
In 2011 the Asia Society presented a white paper to the APEC Women and Economy Summit, written by Asia 21 fellow Mei Pin Phua, entitled Developing Next Generation Women Leaders Across the Asia-Pacific Region. The paper contained concrete action plans “from the classroom to the board room”. Specifically, it offered clear proposals for enrolling more girls in schools and filling more board seats with women.
Focusing on the next generation of women leaders across the region represents an excellent opportunity to share information and inspire each other. For instance, although Japan ranks 101 in the overall Gender Gap Index ranking, it ranks first in the world when it comes to women’s literacy and healthy life expectancy. By comparison Laos has an overall ranking of 52 but has a low literacy rate (119th). As recommended by the white paper: if the best practices of one Asian country can be effectively implemented in another, this will certainly bring about a brighter future in the region.
Studies indicate there is a direct correlation between a woman’s success (especially in a corporate setting) and the presence of a role model. That is, a woman with a role model tends to be more successful than a woman without one. Here it is worth noting that the Asia Society itself has elevated many women to its highest positions of leadership. Its last two presidents – dating back to 2003 – have been the arts and culture leader Vishakha Desai, and the former head of the United Nations World Food Programme Josette Sheeran. In my own experience as an Asia 21 Fellow, my encounter with Ms. Desai no doubt played an important role in boosting my confidence and clarifying my societal mission to improve the state of women in corporate Japan. Such influences are critical for women in Asia, if those metrics are to change for the better.
On the occasion of the anniversary, I pay my respect to Mr. John D. Rockefeller 3rd for his vision in establishing the Asia Society. I applaud the Asia Society for carrying out his vision for the last 60 years. I thank the Society for creating a vibrant Asia 21 network and welcoming me in the community and I renew my commitment to serving my part towards a bright shared future for several decades to come.