Women stand to gain from the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Taiwan’s recent election of Tsai Ing-wen to the presidency was a reminder that Asia is undergoing an overdue change. Whether it is through concerted efforts like Japan’s “womenomics” initiative or inevitable demographic shifts, more women in Asia are taking leadership roles and joining the workforce. Congress has the opportunity to speed up this process and unleash new opportunities for millions of women by approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

Tucked away in the development chapter of TPP is a short section on women’s empowerment and economic growth. Recognizing the importance of women’s contributions to economic growth and development, the section calls on participating countries to undertake a number of cooperative activities to help women access the benefits of the agreement.

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The inclusion of this language is not simply a nod to lofty development goals. Women’s empowerment is essential to unlocking the region’s full economic potential. In a 2015 report, McKinsey estimated that if women’s labor force participation equaled that of men, it would generate a total of $11 trillion additional dollars in annual GDP for the Asia-Pacific region. This statistic speaks volumes about the economic potential of empowering women in the Asia-Pacific region and the role TPP could play.

Economic insecurity is an inescapable cycle for many women in the Pacific, due to employment discrimination compounded by a lack of education. With this in mind, women from both developing and developed TPP economies stand to benefit from this deal. 

As business owners, women will benefit from expanded opportunities to sell their products online, as well as less red tape and simpler customs procedures.

As consumers and household heads, women will gain from a wider selection of products and lower prices resulting from the elimination and reduction of tariffs on thousands of products.

As workers, women will benefit from commitments on worker rights, including the right to bargain collectively and form unions, as well as provisions on improved labor conditions, including a minimum wage and strengthened safety conditions in the workplace. They will also secure additional protections through commitments prohibiting employment discrimination and forced labor.

As mothers, women will be able to provide their children a greener and less polluted world through the agreement’s groundbreaking environmental provisions that safeguard oceans, fishing, forests and wildlife protection.

For the next generation, women will leave a better world as the closer regional economic ties promoted by the TPP will help to advance peace and stability in the region and foster vastly improved market access.

The TPP will of course present challenges and require adjustments for each economy and its citizens, including for women. But the agreement ultimately seeks to soften these challenges and provide for smooth implementation, through mechanisms such as phased-in transition periods for certain commitments and safeguard provisions to respond to potential import surges.

Moreover, women are known to more readily embrace change and have proved particularly resilient as they seek a more inclusive economy. The journalist Hannah Rosin argues in her well-known and controversial book, The End of Men, that women are more flexible and adaptable and thus perfectly suited to the demands of the modern industrial age. As Rosin observes, women in India are learning English faster than men to adapt to the needs of a more internationalized economy. In China, women have embraced the rise of a commercial economy, taking ownership of more than 40 percent of the nation’s burgeoning private businesses. And a recent World Bank report notes that over 50 percent of the Asia-Pacific region’s small and medium enterprises — a critical sector of the economy that TPP will further boost — have a female owner.

A final point to remember is that women played a prominent role shaping TPP. As a senior negotiator for the U.S., I was often struck by the number of female delegates at the table. One-third of the 12 chief negotiators were female, as were many of the lead issue negotiators and their teams. These women are already climbing up the ranks of their governments and some will undoubtedly join the senior ranks of the private sector in the years ahead. As they reach senior positions, we expect them to make further contributions to economic growth and development, building on the vast benefits that TPP will provide.

The concrete benefits and the improved opportunities resulting from TPP will lead to improved economic livelihood and a brighter economic future for women in this region that will pay dividends to generations to come. It is critical that Congress approve the deal for these benefits to be recognized.

Cutler, former acting deputy U.S. Trade Representative, is vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

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