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In the latest in our series of Diverse Asia articles, Manulife Investment Management explores the gender-related challenges and opportunities found within Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan. The content has been eveloped with insight and research from our proprietary data as well as the Sau Po Centre on Ageing at “HKU”.

Identifying the causes for income and pension inequality

Gender inequalities throughout the life course

Chart Source: “Closing gender gaps throughout the life course,” Human Development Reports, March 2018. Data source: 2016 Human Development Report, Life-Course Gender Gap Dashboard, the most recent comprehensive data set available. Data on share of science, mathematics, engineering, manufacturing and construction (STEM) graduates at tertiary level is from UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2018), Data Centre. Data on total time spent on unpaid care work is from the 2015 Human Development Report, Figure 4.1. Data on life expectancy at age 60 is from UNDESA (2017), World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision. STEM includes science, mathematics, engineering, manufacturing and construction graduates.

Contextualising structural inequalities in Asia

Labour force participation in our four key Asian markets (%)

Chart Source: All data is as of June 2022. International Labour Organization, ILOSTAT database; Taiwan data is from the Ministry of Labor, Taiwan.

Labour force participation rates in Taiwan (%)

Chart Source: Ministry of Labor, Taiwan, 2021.

Malaysian national employees by occupation and gender, plus median monthly basic salary

Chart Source: Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis (ILMIA), National Employment Return (NER), 2019, latest available data.

Female workers with tertiary education degrees in Indonesia earn substantially less than male counterparts (Rp, Indonesian rupiah)

Chart Source: “Labour Force Survey,” UN Women and BPS, February 2020, latest available data.

Higher-paying jobs are dominated by men in Indonesia (Rp, Indonesian rupiah)

Chart Source: “Labour Force Survey,” UN Women and BPS, February 2020, latest available data.

Gender-specific risks extend to greater care needs in later life among women

We’ve noted the impact that marriage and childbearing can have on women’s wealth accumulation, but what about other family responsibilities? And do gender-based health issues—such as women outliving men or having shorter healthy life expectancy—create greater challenges for women to fulfil their care needs?  

An example from Taiwan shows how gender inequality can result in later-life disparities. In 2020, the average healthy life expectancy of Taiwanese people was 84.7 years for women and 78.1 years for men, meaning women outlive men by 6 to 7 years. However, living longer doesn’t mean living longer and healthier. In fact, the average unhealthy life expectancy was 9.39 years for women and 7.64 years for men. In most of our observed markets, although women tend to live longer than men, they have higher morbidity rates and suffer from a diminished quality of life. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that in Taiwan, statistics show that more women than men are using long-term care services.

2020 users of long-term care services, by sex (%)

Chart Source: Executive Yuan, Taiwan, 2022, latest available data.

Caregiving for older adults is also a predominantly women-centred issue and another reason for economic gender disparity. For example, in Hong Kong, caregiving responsibilities are largely shouldered by women, which often results in women dropping out of the workforce and facing increased care costs without income.

Hong Kong non-working household members who had quit a job because of the need to take care of members with disabilities by age group and sex (thousands)

Chart Source: Census and Statistics Department, 2021.

Inequality is a life course-perpetuating problem; therefore, to break up consistent patterns of inequality, we need to consider how failing to address causes early on can lead to lifelong and life-changing deprivations. For example, children who lack access to education early in life may be forced to resort to informal work or suffer periods of unemployment, which can lead to the disruption of wealth accumulation and an impoverished old age. Older people may also suffer from illnesses or disabilities brought on by lack of preventive healthcare or medicine or from injuries sustained by physical labour, which could also add to the burden on their retirement income as it decumulates.


Beyond more structural issues, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionally negative effect on women from a health, well-being, and financial perspective.

  • According to the “Global Gender Gap Report 2021,” issued by the World Economic Forum, “The hardest hit sectors by lockdowns and rapid digitalisation are those where women are more frequently employed. Combined with the additional pressures of providing care in the home, the crisis has halted progress toward gender parity in several economies and industries.” 
  • According to International Labour Union statistics, COVID-19 caused women’s employment in Asia and the Pacific to decrease by 3.8%, whereas men’s employment fell just 2.9%.
  • For example, after Indonesian workers were sent home during the pandemic, its Chamber of Commerce and Industry predicted layoffs would result in 6.4 million jobs being lost. Indonesia’s garment industry employs 2.1 million workers, of which women make up 80% of the total workforce.
  • The sharp rise in poverty caused by the pandemic is believed to have had a larger impact on women and female-led households. World Bank research also suggests 74% of female-headed households received less or no payment during the pandemic, and significant numbers of migrant workers returned home after losing their income.

Case studies: ways to enhance gender pension protection