by Gary Lai
Gender equality and economic development go hand in hand. The former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan suggested that gender equality was a pre-requisite to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Esther Duflo, a renowned economist, proffered a connection between the two, but gender equality should be strived for for its own sake.
Hong Kong treats women well by many standards. Women are offered similar opportunities as men in education. If women want to, they can work. Female politicians occupy top positions in government, even though not at the same frequencies as men.
One of the city’s shortcomings is its education system. Hong Kong – despite its government’s free, 12 year education curriculum – enrolled only 87.8% of all possible girls in secondary schools in 2014. The US had a female enrolment rate of 92.0% in 2014. France had an enrolment rate of 94.6% in 2004. The UK had a better enrolment rate for girls in secondary schools of 98.8%.
Suppose the government learns from other countries and the city attains better numbers. If Hong Kong’s net enrolment rate in secondary schools for girls was at France’s level – and if it had a female labour force participation rate (another measure of gender equality) at Switzerland’s level (61.8% versus Hong Kong’s 51.1%, which is a decent number for an industrialised economy) – its GDP, according to my analysis, would be US$435 billion (HK$3.4 trillion). That is a 40.3% increase from the city’s 2015 GDP of US$310 billion (HK$2.4 trillion).
If Hong Kong’s government does not want to learn from other countries’ policies, it could still improve on its gender policies. The net enrolment rate in secondary schools for girls may increase a reasonable 5% and Hong Kong’s female labour force participation rate increase by 5%. Using numbers from 2014, Hong Kong’s GDP would still improve 21.9% from US$291.2 billion (HK$2.3 trillion) to US$354.9 billion (HK$2.8 trillion).
This is important in these tough economic times. There is a very strong link between education for women and a boost in national income in Hong Kong. The challenge for policymakers is to find out what keeps 12.2% of girls who should be in school absent. Maybe they could not afford auxiliary costs to education – books, stationery, food, and transportation, etc. This calls for innovative funding programs, including vouchers, grants, and family assistance.
Maybe girls are missing school because of their families. They may be taking on a job, which requires the government to reassess social welfare programs for low income families. Girls also need to know that they have greater career opportunities if they finish secondary and tertiary education with greater income associated with it. Finally, they may be suffering from abuse, which requires the aid of social workers.
In modern Hong Kong, education is not restricted to the privileged or to the male gender. Given the numbers to show its correlation to economic growth, educating girls in secondary schools – and reaching full attainment – should definitely be a priority for the government.
Gary Lai was the director for ten years of the anti-poverty campaign TKO Poverty.