Indonesia’s Working Women Struggle to Succeed

Growing equality means a better economy for Indonesia: World Bank

Workers sew women's dresses on the production line in the garment area at a Sri Rejeki Isman (Sritex) factory in Sukoharjo, Java, Indonesia, on Wednesday, March 27, 2013. (Bloomberg Photo/Dadang Tri)

Workers sew women’s dresses on the production line in the garment area at a Sri Rejeki Isman (Sritex) factory in Sukoharjo, Java, Indonesia, on Wednesday, March 27, 2013. (Bloomberg Photo/Dadang Tri)

Ask the chief executive of one of the country’s largest banks what it takes for a woman to excel in the workplace and the answer is clear.

“You have to manage everything well,” says Parwati Surjaudaja, the president director of Bank OCBC NISP.

While countries in the West continue to aim for reductions in yawning pay gaps and a gradual dismantling of the glass ceiling, the developing world is, for the most part, a long way behind in building the foundations for greater female participation in the workforce.

Not so in Indonesia.

According to World Bank data, 51 percent of women are employed in the workforce, compared with 78 percent of men, which compares favorably with the numbers of women in Malaysia and India’s workforces, at 44 percent and 29 percent respectively, in comparison to the 77 percent and 81 percent of males employed in those countries, respectively.

“The way society is constructed now is much more conducive to allowing women to succeed,” Parwati says.

But the Indonesian labor market is a broad canvas and a woman’s ability to succeed in it is equally varied.

Women in white-collar jobs may find it less difficult to break through the glass ceiling in Indonesia, but the “sticky floor” of the nation’s factories makes it harder for women in blue-collar lines of work to get off the ground.

Only 51 percent of working women held labor jobs, compared with 84 percent of men.

In a country where participation in education has, in fact, seen a reverse gender gap at the introductory level, with a 101 to 100 ratio of female to male enrollment, Hana Satriyo, the director of gender and women’s participation at The Asia Foundation, says that the primary issue is not access to education.

The illiteracy rate among females, however, is of greater concern.

The Central Statistcs Agency says 8.8 percent of women are unable to read or write — more than double the 4 percent of men.

A higher illiteracy rate among women inevitably erodes the country’s headline female-employment figure, but for many working-age women, the barriers to entry are more abstract and are made of perception.

A woman’s ‘double-burden’

“Women who work face a double-burden in society. They can work but are also perceived to have the main responsibility of caring for the family at home,” says Miranda Fajerman, an equal-opportunities adviser in Indonesia with the International Labor Organization.

Parwati agrees that professional women are forced to prioritize because the expectation that they are responsible for the family unit is deep-rooted in most of Indonesian society.

The consequences of such expectations, however, are more keenly felt where there are fewer opportunities.

“Research shows that women tend to find it more difficult to enter the labor force after giving birth to children,” Fajerman said. “They are less likely to be hired in the labor industry because they are seen as vulnerable.”

Most of the women earning a living in blue-collar employment do so in in the informal sector or as migrant workers.

Female-led enterprises are often smaller, more unstable and less capitalized than businesses run by men because women have less access to the credit and resources on which growth is predicated.

Women in Indonesia continue to earn less than men for similar work in all sectors, but, according to the World Bank, the pay gap in the labor industry here is one of the largest in the East Asia and Pacific region.

This is in part, due to the regrettable but no less common practice of hiring women as temporary employees, regardless of whether that accurately reflects their work situation.

Mobilizing the female workforce

Employers hire female workers on temporary contracts because they can, Fajerman says, and because it is instructive of a widely held view that women will be absent more frequently as a result of motherhood, incurring greater cost to the employer.

“Hiring a woman may be more expensive in the short term, but in the long term investing in a female employee is worth it,” says Yulia Immajati, a consultant on gender.

The World Bank’s most recent report on Indonesia’s quarterly economic performance highlights that, in the last decade, blossoming GDP and a commensurate reduction in poverty have gone hand-in-hand with improved gender equality.

“If done properly, the greater integration of women in the workforce would positively influence Indonesia’s economy,” Yulia says.

The World Bank does, of course, support greater female participation in the workforce, saying that greater gender equality and access to resources and opportunities could result in higher productivity that would benefit both women and men.

The allocation of resources on the basis of skills and abilities, as opposed to gender, could, it says, increase productivity by as much as 14 percent per worker, with measurable improvements in poverty reduction.

The future

According to Yulia, the status of women in the working world has improved significantly over time and Indonesia has enshrined some sound laws protecting women’s rights and encouraging participation.

“How serious the government is in upholding and enforcing these laws, however, is a mixed picture,” Hana says.

“There is a strong political commitment but this commitment has not, so far, been translated as significantly into the national budget,” Yulia says.

The picture is likely to remain mixed.

Yulia says that Indonesia has much work to do, “but we’re getting there,” while Parwati adds that the juggling of family and work responsibilities is not an issue that is going to disappear any time soon.

“You have to manage everything well,” she says. “But that’s why God created women — we can handle it.”