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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Poorly employed Asian women pose both old and new challenges to the world's fastest growing region, with nearly half of them without jobs and struggling with perennial issues of lower wages and fewer chances for education.
But now, their lack of job opportunities is also costing billions of dollars a year in Asia, a report said on Friday.
"Asian women have certainly been an engine of the region's economic dynamism," the report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and International Labour Organization (ILO) said.
"But 45 percent of working-age Asian women were inactive compared to 19 percent of men, and differentials persist in the types of jobs women and men have access to."
As a result, even before the global economic crisis, the Asia-Pacific region was losing a potential $42 billion to $47 billion annually -- a situation that has likely only worsened.
Though overall regional unemployment rates for women remain better than those for men, at 4.3 against 4.7 percent in 2009, this does not necessarily mean that the jobs they have are good, the report warned.
Many of these jobs are poorly-paid and may be in the "informal" economy, meaning they are more vulnerable to economic fluctuations in times both good and bad.
For one thing, demand may be high for women in labor-intensive manufacturing jobs. But it is largely due to women being seen as willing to accept lower wages, easier to manage and less likely to unionize, and easier to dismiss, with marriage and childbirth as excuses.
In addition, 48.2 percent of all employed women worked in agriculture in 2009 compared with 38.9 percent of men. Only 18 percent worked in industry against 26.2 percent of men.
"Asia faces both old and new challenges and it needs to address both if it is to reap the social and economic benefits of gender equality," Sachiko Yamamoto, ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.
"The drive to rebalance toward more sustainable, fairer development must not distract policymakers from dealing with ingrained gender inequalities."
Even in sectors where women made up more than 50 percent of the workforce, such as health and social work and education, they tended to be in the lower echelons -- nurses as opposed to doctors, or primary school teachers instead of university teaching staff.
As a result, women's wages were typically 70 to 90 percent those of men.
Conditions have improved as the global economy recovers, with Asia leading the way, but recovery remains fragile for many, the report said. Thus, governments should consider support for female-run businesses and equality in education, it added.
As the region rebuilds economically, it actually has the chance to build better labor markets -- at least where women are concerned, it added.
"The social and economic costs of missing this opportunity will be felt for decades," Yamamoto said.
Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa