Economy & Business
Diversity in Taiwan
Taiwan leads the way in Asia in gender equality, but can it overcome its patriarchal heritage?
By Mike Jewell
“These last few years, we in Taiwan have seen many committed and determined women break through gender barriers in all fields, thanks to their persistence and bravery. But I have even higher hopes. I hope that no matter the profession outstanding performance by a woman won’t have to be held up as an example but can simply be seen as a matter of course.”
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), March 2021
Taiwan is generally recognised as the most advanced country in Asia in terms of gender equality and one of the better nations on the entire planet. The Executive Yuan’s Department of Gender Equality (DGE) plotted Taiwan’s performance on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index earlier this year and concluded that Taiwan ranks sixth best globally and #1 in Asia. (It says something about the state of the world that the index is called Gender In-equality).
Today, women’s rights are protected under article 7 of Taiwan’s constitution, but it wasn’t always so. In Qing times, Taiwan was a strongly patriarchal society. Wornen were not allowed to receive an education, to socialise or to make decisions for themselves, and the only proper sphere of activity for a Taiwanese woman was the home.
Under Japanese colonial rule, things began to change. Despite the imposition of Japanese laws which continued to discriminate against women, the colonial rulers established a modern education system to replace traditional Confucian schools for all including Taiwanese girls, as part of the process of Japanisation. This was seen as a way to effect acceptance of new lifestyles and create a unified and loyal nation, but it also opened the door to education for Taiwanese women and paved the way for their entry into the workforce and into society on a more even footing.
By the end of the Japanese era, 60% of girls were going to school, although higher education was heavily restricted for fear of generating activism and anti-colonialist sentiment, but the genie was out of the bottle. Many Taiwanese women became active in campaigns to oust the overlords and the drive towards women’s rights was under way.
Post-1945, the women’s rights movement began to take shape, hand-in-hand with the democracy movement. Annette Lu Hsiu-lien (呂秀蓮) and Chen Chu (陳菊) are widely credited with being among the pioneers, ultimately spending time behind bars for their outspoken calls for democracy and an end to authoritarian rule. However, progress on women’s empowerment really only gathered pace after the end of martial law in 1987, with the establishment of various government and quasi-government bodies to drive equality and the passage of successive rounds of legislation. The most prominent of these was the Committee of Women's Rights Promotion (CWRP), which eventually morphed into the Executive Yuan’s Gender Equality Committee with a remit to facilitate the integration of gender equality policies across various government bodies and the direction of central and local governments as they put gender mainstreaming into practice.
Broad societal changes are driving advances in female empowerment
As in other developed societies, improvement in the status of women is strongly correlated with changing social structures and the statistics below paint a vivid picture of how much women’s lives have changed in the space of two generations.
Taiwanese women get married later and later and the average family size has decreased significantly from 6.1 when the Japanese left to only 2.7. Gains in opportunities outside of marriage, together with the increasing costs of raising children, mean that the traditional male-breadwinner family has lost its appeal to young women, especially well-educated women.
“I examined the priorities of my life, and I was unwilling to bet the happiness of the rest of my life on a man…I live an enriched life, with my job, my friends and family members. I enjoy the freedom and the greater time and energy I have."
Chi Hui-jung (紀惠容), former CEO, Garden of Hope Foundation
How far has Taiwan come?
The clearest evidence of Taiwan’s progress comes from the political arena. President Tsai is notable not only for being Taiwan’s first woman president, but also because she is the first female head of state in Asia not born into a political family and not to have risen to the presidency on the coattails of a successful male relative.
Women can also be found elsewhere in the corridors of political power, notably – Wang Mei-hua (王美花), Minister of Economic Affairs, Hsu Ming-chun (許銘春), Minister of Labor, May Lee, Chair of the Fair Trade Commission, Audrey Tang (唐鳳), Minister without Portfolio, Chen Chu (陳菊), President of the Control Yuan and presidential spokesperson, Kolas Yutaka (葉冠伶). Taiwan’s highest profile diplomatic post, in Washington DC is held by Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴).
The DGE’s annual report is at pains to point out that women’s participation in government sector decision-making has increased in the past decade and that the government continues to promote the one-third gender rule, although achievement of this target is far from complete, especially at the cabinet level.
Meanwhile, only three out of 22 city and county administrations have hit the one-third target.
The DGE is particularly proud of the fact that 42% of legislators are women, far ahead of any other Asian nation and well above the global average of 25% (but still some way short of the star performer, Rwanda, with 61%)
In an interview with Nikkei Asia, lawyer Zoe Lee (李菁琪) caught the changing mood towards women in the political sphere, explaining that she was selected by her party as a candidate for the last legislative election because of her advocacy and political stance rather than any connection to a prominent man, as was once common in Taiwan politics.
"In recent years, more and more female candidates are opting not to lead with 'I'm so-and-so's daughter' or 'I'm so-and-so's wife’. When voters cast their ballots now, they're looking at the candidate, not the man she might be a proxy for."
Women in the commercial sector
At 51%, the proportion of women in some form of employment has grown considerably over the last two generations, and women now make up 45% of the work force, but the figure is no more than on par with the global average.
And there are major imbalances across different types of occupation. Clerical support jobs, for example, and sales roles are still predominantly given to women.
One element of the problem has been the lack of role models in business for young women to look up to and draw inspiration from. Official figures show that, in 2019, only 29% of legislators, senior officials and managers throughout the entire workforce were female. This is a ten percentage point rise in the past decade, and well ahead of Korea and Japan (both a mere 15%), but still lags behind such as the US (44%), Sweden (40%) and even Singapore (37%).
Additional analysis from the DGE highlights the lack of female presence in the upper echelons of corporate Taiwan. Only 14% of the 15,000+ directors of public companies were women. This is well below the 25% in the EU and many other developed nations.
On the plus side, there are sectors where women are already firmly established at the very top. This is certainly true in market research, where I spent my career, and across other areas of marketing services, such as advertising and public relations. The pharmaceutical industry, too, has a strong female senior presence, while a new report from the BCCTaipei’s Women in Business and Renewables Committees reveals that 60% of companies in Taiwan’s fledgling offshore wind industry have female directors and many have women heading up the companies.
Another positive indication of the critical role women are playing in the commercial environment is the SME sector, the backbone of Taiwan’s economy, where 37% of companies are run by women.
Talking to a number of senior female executives in preparing this article, all spoke quite positively about how the working environment is improving, with more women coming through into senior positions and they themselves generally find little or no prejudice in their day-to-day business dealings, even with more traditional local companies, which tend to be more male dominated.
It is not uncommon for female executives to be assumed to be the junior team member when entering meetings along with a male colleague, but these awkward moments pass quickly. Taiwanese businesses are equally comfortable dealing with women or men.
Some, though, do find they need to try just that little bit harder to be recognised within their own organisation, sensing that the playing field isn’t entirely level. One senior director told me,
“I personally haven’t encountered any problems, because I’m tougher than the men in the working environment, but I have to be more proactive and know how to showcase my achievements.”
"Science for boys, humanities for girls"
This maxim underscores one of the main imbalances in gender equality in Taiwan. The ICT industry, such a key component of the economy, largely remains a male preserve, especially for roles of greater responsibility. The reason for this is not hard to find and is by no means an issue that just plagues Taiwan.
In contrast to the ready supply of female talent entering administration, finance, government affairs, marketing and other roles, there is a dearth of women targeting the technical and engineering functions, as relatively few women take engineering or other technical disciplines. The so-called STEM fields of study – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – have traditionally attracted mostly male students, with conventional wisdom being that this type of course leads to jobs that are only suitable for men. Overall, equal numbers of men and women graduate from universities and colleges each year, but male STEM graduates outnumber female, much as in other developed countries.
Source: Gender At A Glance in Taiwan, 2021; Dept. of Gender Equality, Executive Yuan
By contrast, women make up 70.4% of graduates in education and 69.7% of graduates in arts and humanities.
The elephant in the room
The Ministry of Labor symbolically declared 20 February 2021, ‘Equal Pay Day’, based on estimates that women needed to work 51 days into this year to match the earnings of their male counterparts in calendar year 2020. Put another way, average hourly pay rates for women are 14% lower than for men. This represents steady improvement since 2008, when Equal Pay Day fell on March 10 and a big step forward from 30 years ago, when the differential was over 30%. Thankfully, we’re not in Japan or Korea, where the gender pay gaps are still above 30%.
The size of the gap is not uniform but shows big variations between industries. Figures from the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) show a positive differential of 9% in education, but negative gaps in all other sectors, eg -1% in real estate activities, -10% in finance and insurance, -35% in arts and entertainment and a whopping -41% in computers, electronic and optical products manufacturing. Inequity in pay is still a very visible symbol of gender discrimination here in Taiwan and a major source of frustration for women.
Traditional patriarchy just won’t go away
In Taiwan and throughout much of Asia, traditional values around family and the fixed stereotypes of male and female roles and duties still loom large. In Taiwan, there are high tensions between modern beliefs and attitudes, traditional family expectations, and prevailing social and workplace practices.
Arising from Taiwan’s rapid evolution into a highly developed nation and the concomitant social changes, there is no longer one dominant family form. Now, the single-person household is the fastest growing type of household in Taiwan, jumping to 34% of all households in 2020 from 22% in 2000. This sea change is mainly fuelled by the increase of young urban adults who live alone as a consequence of delayed or declining marriage, increasing divorce, and increasing geographic mobility. It is going hand-in-hand with the rising desire among younger women to have fulfilling and rewarding careers, driven by their extensive exposure to many different cultural influences through foreign education, travel and the media.
They are embracing a whole new set of ideas, which are often at odds with conventional expectations which have endured for several hundred years. The economic freedom of a successful career gives them the chance to pursue personal interests and reward themselves with regular treats. They also dedicate much more time and effort to exercising for the benefit of their shape and their health. These days it is much more about ‘me’.
And yet modern women remain firmly committed to many established moral virtues, such as loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, faith, peace, and conformity.
As I mentioned earlier, this new outlook is changing the landscape surrounding marriage, but, while these changes fly in the face of traditional values, the openness in Taiwan society means that those who choose career over family are usually not looked down on but are accepted as readily as those who follow a more conventional path.
The old ways are far from gone, though, as one of my friends explained:
"I think women in Taiwan still carry the stigma that we need to get married to be ‘normal’ and we need to have children to have ‘normal’ marriages."
Another executive observed that the traditional views are gradually fading with each new generation. Her generation are moving ahead in the modern world with barely a backward glance, while her parents are reasonably sanguine about the personal choices she and her siblings are taking about their futures. Conversely, her grandparents typify the old view, pressuring their sons to become doctors or lawyers and their daughters to marry doctors or lawyers!
Despite the rise of ‘bachelorism’, most women still want a family life, alongside a rewarding career. This tends not to be for the sake of someone "to keep you", but much more for the emotional reward of love and companionship. However, this can be very challenging, because traditional stereotyping still dominates here, and women are generally expected to be home keepers and nannies as well as breadwinners.
This is where the irresistible force of advancing women’s rights runs smack into the immovable object of entrenched patriarchy.
The Gender Equality Report illustrates this inequity perfectly, showing how much more time women spend each day on domestic duties than their other halves.
Admirable as it is that Taiwan’s women are able to find a way to manage the long hours that come with a successful career as well as the burden of running a household, it is patently unfair, and it is a source of widespread discontent. More women want more equality in a marriage relationship.
One business owner told me flat out, "Taiwanese men need to improve. They ‘help’ but they don’t ‘share’."
This is quite different from the situation in other parts of the world, notably Scandinavia, where the prevailing attitude is in favour of true sharing of family responsibilities to create a happy balance between family and work life for both partners. Women’s rights groups here have pushed for government-sponsored education programmes to promote relationships in which both genders are equals, although some caution that it will be difficult for men to accept, fearing a loss of face if they go against the norms within their peer group.
There is also a firm expectation that the Taiwan government could do much more to bring about genuine equality, both with educational communications and practical initiatives, such as affordable and good quality public facilities that combine early education and childcare. Again, we can learn from Scandinavia, with its powerful combination of progressive social attitudes, state provision of social welfare and infrastructure and of extensive company support for employees.
The women I spoke to are in no doubt that there is a moral responsibility on companies as well as government to take the initiative in promoting gender equality and ensuring an environment in which women feel they can flourish alongside male colleagues. Many companies already have policies in place to cater for the specific needs of staff with young families, for example, by providing enhanced maternity (and paternity) benefits over and above the miserly provisions of the local labour laws, better healthcare, additional leave allowances, more flexibility in working hours and onsite care facilities. These should be universal in a properly equal society.
There is much to be thankful for in Taiwan, with its progressive attitudes and open mindset and much to admire for the advances already made in driving towards gender equality. At the same time, significant hurdles remain to be overcome if Taiwan is to blend successfully the best of the modern way with the best of the traditional.
Young legislator Lai Pin-yu (賴品妤) put it best:
"Even though people think gender equality in Taiwan is extremely progressive within Asia, that doesn't mean that Taiwan actually enjoys true equality."