Despite the progress made over the last two decades in empowering women in Asia and the Pacific, there remain huge gender gaps, particularly in the economic and political spheres. The ADB-hosted seminar ‘Breaking Barriers: Women Entrepreneurship in Asia and the Pacific’ was held at ADB’s 51st Annual Meeting, with the participation of policymakers, entrepreneurs, researchers, and development practitioners.

“Women’s entrepreneurship is important because it helps us move closer to the goal of achieving a more gender equal Asia and the Pacific,” said ADB President Mr Takehiko Nakao at the seminar. “Under our new Strategy 2030, ADB will pay increased attention to generating employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for women.”

Panelists at the seminar included International Labour Organization Director Mr. Graeme Buckley; Chief Executive Officer of Prelo (an Indonesian enterprise offering a retail-sharing e-platform) Ms. Fransiska Hadiwidjana; Undersecretary of the Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry Ms. Zenaida Maglaya; President and Representative Director of Veolia Japan K. K. Ms. Yumiko Noda; and President of the Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Ms. Rokia Afzal Rahman.

In the theme chapter of the Asian Development Outlook Update 2015, ADB estimated that closing the existing gender gaps could generate a 30% increase in the per capita income of an average Asian economy in one generation or 30 years, and 70% in two generations.

The panelists agreed that while there is a long road ahead to full gender equality, policies supporting women’s entrepreneurship can help ignite momentum for this effort, together with access to information, government services, and credit. The seminar discussed various ways in which women entrepreneurs can overcome the multiple barriers they face and how the public and private sectors can help accelerate support for women startups and entrepreneurs.

Nearly half of ADB lending already has strong gender design elements. ADB under  Strategy 2030 will place an even stronger emphasis on women’s economic empowerment. Infrastructure projects will maximise women’s access to markets and opportunities for skilled jobs. Through enhanced technical and vocational education and training programs, ADB will enable women’s access to quality jobs in nontraditional, higher-paying sectors. ADB will also expand integrated support for women entrepreneurs through better access to finance, the adoption of new technologies, and policy and institutional reforms.

ADB has been adopting innovative approaches involving other partners in promoting women’s entrepreneurship. In April 2018, ADB received a US$12.6mn grant from the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) (a global fund hosted by the World Bank Group) to help Sri Lankan women-led businesses obtain bank loans and improve business skills. This new source of funding complements ADB’s own financing of US$175mn, which was approved earlier to encourage local partner banks to grow their small and medium-sized enterprise portfolios—especially for businesses that are outside Colombo or are women-led.

Mr Nakao also mentioned ADB’s ongoing efforts to improving gender balance within ADB, with representation of women among international staff increasing to a record high of 35% in 2017—a step closer to the bank’s target of 40% by the end of 2022.