The Asian HR community is feeling the heat more than ever to plug the region’s gaping gender pay gap, in the wake of a new initiative launched on the fringes of the UN general assembly in New York last week.

The Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC) – led by the UN International Labour Organization (ILO), UN Women and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – has added a new sense of urgency to tackling the issue.

Its aim is to achieve equal pay for work of equal value by 2030, regardless of gender, further strengthening Target 8.7 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is now a matter for the EPIC secretariat to convene its steering committee before agreeing on a work plan, before setting targets and measuring results, says Raphael Crowe, senior gender specialist at ILO Geneva.

“Country ownership and alignment with national priorities is fundamental” when implementing projects under the EPIC for each country and it will be supported at global and regional levels, Crowe said.

“The new initiative obviously has put pressure on the HR sector to overhaul gender-biased policies because they potentially entrench discrimination such that the female candidate will earn less,” associate professor Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions & Organisations (CGIO) at the National University of Singapore Business School, told People Management.

The priority now is to “strengthen and integrate HR policies such as gender-neutral job selections and job evaluations, equal access to career opportunities, and increased pay transparency across job types and levels”, Professor Loh said.

The new initiative is important to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region, where women traditionally earn a lot less than men for the same level of work. The gender pay gap ranges from 1.7 per cent to a massive 38 per cent across the region, according to Joni Simpson, senior specialist on gender, equality and non-discrimination at ILO’s Bangkok office, quoting its latest available data from 2015.

The EPIC will add momentum to initiatives. And it will reinforce efforts to eliminate the pay gap by “connecting initiatives that might exist at national, sectoral or regional levels,” said Crowe.

For example, depending on what ASEAN countries agree, some ideas to reduce gender pay inequalities under the EPIC could include “peer-to-peer support by sharing of good practice, holding regional equal pay conferences, and research or country studies on the obstacles to achieving equal pay for work of equal value, which could be carried out in cooperation with governments, employers, workers’ organisations and the private sector”, he suggested.

The UN initiative is an “excellent way to encourage multi-sector, multi-stakeholder collaboration and cooperation to eliminate the gender pay gap,” said Fiona Nott, CEO of Hong Kong-based The Women’s Foundation (TWF). “Re-energising” the gender pay gap discussion around the world is key and EPIC provides a perfect platform for it, Nott added.

Even countries which rank highest in terms of the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index, like Norway and Sweden, have gender pay gaps that hover around 14 per cent, she noted.

But debate alone won’t solve the issue. Collecting, analysing and reporting gender-segregated pay data is an important first step towards levelling the playing field, said Nott.

When it comes to data, it varies according to country. Nevertheless, they all point to a gaping gap in pay. According to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department’s 2017 data, the gender pay gap in Hong Kong stands at 22 per cent, which tops Singapore's gender pay gap by more than 10 per cent, Nott said. Separately, an Oxfam report published in September 2016 said women on average in Hong Kong earn only 60 per cent of the amount men do. And this gap is even worse for women living below the poverty line.

ILO data for 2015 puts the gender pay gap in Hong Kong at 7.5 per cent, and 25.3 per cent in Singapore. In Malaysia, the gap is down to 3.9 per cent, while the figure stands at 1.7 per cent in Thailand. The only exception to this trend in Asia Pacific is the Philippines, where men’s pay is 5.4 per cent lower than that of women, according to the ILO.

Having crunched the data, companies need to set timelines and targets for reducing gender pay gaps, Nott said – for which the EPIC can help. Having a holistic approach that will include “not just tackling pay inequalities but other measures including sponsorship and mentoring for women employees, aligned HR policies and practices and tackling entrenched mindsets and unconscious bias are key”, she said.

“The Equal Pay International Coalition is a necessary global movement and response,” added Professor Loh. Unequal pay can be seen as one of the most persistent barriers to women’s success at work and economic growth – achieving equality could have a significant impact on promoting inclusive societies, women’s economic empowerment and gender equality, he said.

For its part, TWF said it develops ‘Best Practice’ guides for companies to review their existing practices, and develop effective drivers of sustainable change to achieve greater gender equality. “These can address some of the root causes of issues like the gender pay gap,” said Nott.

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