Ideas for a brighter future for all

Women’s entrepreneurship in the Asia-Pacific: the $5 trillion opportunity

Entrepreneurship in the Asia-Pacific region has never been more important than now, when disruption reigns and adaptive recovery from COVID-19 dominates discussions. Despite downturns, the region hums with an entrepreneurial energy and spirit of opportunity that permeates everywhere from local marketplaces to the sprawling headquarters of multinational corporations. The region continues to demonstrate unrivalled dynamism and diversity. And, as an economic powerhouse frequently referred to as the “engine of global growth”, the Asia-Pacific increasingly acts as the lynchpin influencing the lives of citizens and states across the globe.

"Exacerbated by the unequal, gendered nature of the pandemic, women’s access to and opportunities for entrepreneurship represents one of the greatest challenges—and opportunities—facing this century."
Vietnamese Woman
Gender inequality cripples the region 

In 2018, the World Economic Forum predicted that, based on current trajectories, it would take 171 years for East Asia and the Pacific to attain gender equality, making them the last region in the world to achieve equality. The pandemic is pitched to set progress back even further, which has critical ramifications for women entrepreneurs. Even prior to the pandemicAsian women made considerable gains in education that have not translated sufficiently to the opportunities offered by employment and entrepreneurship. Women remain ingrained in poverty and face lower economic opportunities. Women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are often smaller in scale, scope, and profit than those owned by men. They are often at the micro level or involved in the informal sector. In short, their opportunities are often lesser, and their impact—while profound—is often overlooked. 

This has considerable ramifications for both individuals and communities. We know that gender inequality contributes to poorer development outcomes and instability across individual, community and state levelsWe also know that greater gender equality on the other hand, particularly in the economy and entrepreneurship, is correlated with higher growth and lower poverty. 

In all the talk around the lives and opportunities of women entrepreneurs, important gaps remain. In between successful #girlboss women pioneering their digital dreams or spearheading corporate companies, there are those who never quite make it, whose stories remain unheard and whose voices go unrecognised. For young people in particular, accessing capital and credit, challenging social or cultural limitations, and gaining the necessary skills and resources needed to grow are still issuesBounded by vertical hierarchies and horizontal silos, women confront seemingly endless challenges in navigating entrepreneurship across a region more diverse than almost any other in the world.

Poverty and normative beliefs hamper progress 

Gender inequality is the most pervasive form of inequality around the world, often resulting in systemic poverty for women and girlsFor example, while both men and women experience poverty, gender inequality means that women have fewer resources to cope with itWhile women play major role in agriculture and development to lift their families out of poverty, women’s contributions and successrarely alter normative beliefs and practices that entitle men to control women and family resourcesAdditionally, existing statutory and customary lawslimit women’s access to land and other forms of property in half  the countries in Asia.

Floating Market
Gendered barriers in entrepreneurship 

Poverty, of course, is implicated in power and powerlessness, which further defines many women’s experiences—in the home, the workplace, and the state. Whilewomen represent 61 million entrepreneurs in ASEAN aloneand in some countries represent a majority of all entrepreneurs, the reality is far from being a simple gender success story writ in the shining lights of big business. Often, women’s entrepreneurship is a result of bounded choices—the need to still put food on the table, educate young ones, care for the elderly, and survive in many cases without access to social policy supports—which tend to overlook many of women’s circumstances, if they even exist at all. 

How entrepreneurship, access to capital, and access to markets are characterised by women from many of these backgrounds varies widely from the discussions being held in most economic forums and business chambers of the world. In the region,women spend between 60 and 84 per cent of their time doing unpaid domestic labourtypically housework and caring duties.This has implications on their ability to create sustainable and effective enterprise, significantly drawing on their time and limiting their ability to participate in paid market work.

Cambodia Entrepreneurship
Transformative opportunities of women’s entrepreneurship 

The other sides to these – stories of empowerment and personal triumph, of individual successes and community achievements that temper the myriad inequalities women face – still exist, however. To focus purely on the challenges limits the recognition of the female entrepreneurs who are out there and doing it anyway. It also overlooks the progress, however small, that has been made so far. In stepping into the region, walking alongside young businesswomen in Laos, Vietnam, Brunei and Cambodia, and linking them into the stories of social entrepreneurs and start-up techstars in the wider region, entrepreneurship does still matter. It matters to individuals and it matters to nations. 

Given the gendered challenges we’ve discussed, as well as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the rise of the digital economy, and a rapidly changing social, environmental and economic landscape across the Asia-Pacific region, the opportunities, as it stands, are threefold: 

  1. Entrepreneurship remains one of the only pathways out of poverty that women can access with little reliance on anyone else. With growing technological capabilities and increased interconnectivity, the path from the informal to formal economy and global marketplace has never been more accessible either. This is especially true for those who were previously held down by often-clunky policy infrastructure and a lack of business capital, and for who the barriers to entry have largely diminished. 
  2. In countries with more oppressive political or social regimes – where women and youth in particular are excluded from the policies and practices that would benefit them most – young women are using entrepreneurship to make social change that would be otherwise inaccessible through political means. The result? Think tanks and incubators that empower the next generation of business leaders, and social entrepreneurs that take society’s problems and internalise them into their core business structure, subtly and not-so-subtly making social change that governments sometimes neglect. 
  3. While many women across the Asia-Pacific region may not have been in the position to predict COVID-19, or be able to foresee all the potential impacts and implications of climate change and every other disruptive world event coming our way, they are nonetheless at the coalface of a region brimming with opportunity, ideas and change. As entrepreneurs, they have an ability to leverage gaps, adapt quickly, and often do a lot, with little. In the face of uncertainty and global economic distress, where no one is unaffected, women across the Asia-Pacific region have options and drive regional opportunities. 

In many cases, whether forced to or not, women will be quickest to adapt to new circumstances—already used to doing more with less. Perhaps this is the true story of women’s entrepreneurship in the region: though they remain to have fewer resources, women truly do hold up half the sky. Therefore, for anyone with an ounce of business sense, the return on investment that women entrepreneurs offer the region is the real trillion-dollar opportunity.



Dr Elise Stephenson is an expert in public diplomacy, national security, entrepreneurship and gender equality across Australia and the Indo-Pacific region. She is a multi award-winning researcher and Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Policy Innovation Hub and Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, Australia.

Her current research fields cover government and international relations, as well as entrepreneurship and the Asia Pacific. She is primarily interested in how Australia engages with its region and the world — whether from a diplomatic, national security, or entrepreneurial lens — as well as whom is at the forefront of that engagement — specifically looking at gender and sexuality. Elise is recognised by Google and Deloitte as one of Australia’s 50 Outstanding LGBTI+ leaders, and is Griffith University’s overall Outstanding Young Alumni Awardee of 2020.

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