World's Biggest Muslim Country Puts More Women Into Senior Roles

  • More than a quarter of Indonesia’s cabinet ministers are women
  • Removal of gender bias would boost per capita income, ADB says

In the late 1980s, Pakistani clerics beseeched Indonesia to pray for them after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister and the first woman to govern a Muslim majority nation.

Khofifah Indar Parawansa

Source: Documentation of Indonesia’s Social Ministry via Bloomberg

Khofifah Indar Parawansa, now a cabinet minister in Indonesia, recalls the incident with some irony. The clerics told Abdurrahman Wahid, who would later become Indonesia’s president, that Pakistan would be “unlucky for being ruled by a woman,” she said.  

Parawansa, 52, is one of nine female ministers in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, exemplifying the country’s success in breaking gender and religious stereotypes.

At 26 percent, Indonesia has the largest ratio of female ministers among the 10 biggest countries based on population size, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union or IPU, a global organization of parliaments based in Geneva.

Women have made grounds in Indonesia from politics to central banking. High profile officials include Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi -- a first in the country’s history -- and Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti. Rosmaya Hadi became Bank Indonesia’s only female deputy governor this year.

Click to read how Bank Indonesia’s top woman fights inflation with more than just interest rates

Part of Indonesia’s success has been setting gender quotas for candidates that political parties put forward for public office. Females now hold almost a fifth of the seats in Indonesia’s national parliament, up from 8 percent in 2003 when a non-compulsory quota was first introduced, according to IPU.

In 1995, only four countries used gender quotas, according to research published by the Asia & The Pacific Policy Studies in January. Twenty years later, more than 120 countries had adopted some form of gender quota to increase women’s representation, according to IPU.

In countries like Rwanda, Cuba and Iceland, women lawmakers make up more than 40 percent of parliament. Among the most populous nations, China leads the way with about a quarter.

But there is still a long way to go for Indonesia to boost gender diversity in its economy. The Southeast Asian nation has one of the lowest female participation rates in the labor market in Asia at 38 percent, compared with 44 percent in China and 43 percent in Japan, according to the World Bank.

Indonesia also has one of the largest gender gaps -- the difference between labor-force participation of men and women -- along with India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Mexico, according to a report by Standard Chartered Plc.

“In spite of much progress, gender equality is an unfinished agenda,” Imrana Jalal, senior gender specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila, said in an interview. “Removing gender disparities against women not only upholds their basic rights and promotes social justice, but is also good for development. Making job discrimination unlawful can help economies by deploying talent to occupations that can make the most of it.”

Clockwise from top left: Retno Marsudi, Sri mulyani Indrawati, Megawati Soekarnoputri, Susi Pudjiastuti.

Photographers: Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images, Graham Crouch/Bloomb

Women’s participation in the labor force, particularly in developing nations, has remained low despite significant progress in boosting economic growth, lowering fertility rates, and improving education. In places like Indonesia and the Philippines, social norms still dictate what kind of jobs women can do, with many restricted to handling mainly housework and childcare responsibilities.

This social structure has economic costs. The removal of gender bias in education, the labor market, and the household would increase per capita income by 70 percent over a generation in a typical Asian economy, according to the ADB.

Religious Tension

Parawansa, who is now social affairs minister, said her advance up the political ranks has had its challenges. She was a young member of the parliament in 1998 at 32 when she stood up to speak out against then-dictator Suharto, calling for “political reformation.” The speech was controversial enough that her husband worried for her safety, she recalled.

“The seniors were trying to block me: This little kid, a woman, what is she up to?” Parawansa said in an interview from her office in Jakarta, dressed in a modest long-sleeve Batik shirt and pumpkin-colored headscarf. “Many people were surprised with my speech. I could see that not all people liked the speech.”

Women in public office in Indonesia also need to contend with growing religious conservatism in the country. The election of Jakarta’s governor this year was marred by religious and ethnic tensions, and President Joko Widodo last week banned an Islamist organization in the country, adding to political risks in the country.

For Parawansa, who once aspired to be a motorbike racer, opportunity is key to getting more women into high profile roles.

“Today, I see both men and women are equally tenacious,” she said. “It shouldn’t be waited, opportunity must be pursued.”

— With assistance by Melissa Cheok, and Yudith Ho

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