The complex view of women in power in the Philippines | Inquirer Business
MAPping the Future

The complex view of women in power in the Philippines

Women hold up half the sky.” Mao Zedong’s proclamation that encouraged the participation of Chinese women in the workforce in the 1950s is now a rallying statement worldwide in the fight for gender equality.

Here in the Philippines, Filipinas have long been holding up their half of the sky. In terms of gender equality and women empowerment, our country can be proud of some notable distinctions.


One, we are the first Asian country to elect a female president. Our 1986 People Power Revolution led to the late Corazon Aquino assuming the top position of power. Our second People Power Revolution 15 years later resulted in the first female Vice President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, ascending to the presidency.

Two, we continue to outlead other Asian countries when it comes to closing the disparity between women and men in terms of social, political, intellectual, cultural and economic attainments or attitudes. In the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, an index that tracks the closure of gender-based gaps, the Philippines ranks 17th out of 156 countries and is the only Asian country in the top 20.


Persistent gender disparity

Yet as commendable as these achievements are, they don’t show the full picture of where gender gaps persist in our society.

Our 2021 Global Gender Gap ranking is actually one point down from 2020 and eight points down from 2019. We have more or less closed the gaps in educational attainment and health and survival and bridged most of those in economic participation and opportunity, although inequalities in the labor force participation rate, income and wages remain, no small thanks to the effects of the pandemic.

When it comes to political empowerment, however, the Philippines still has much more to do. Case in point: Only 19 of the 64 aspirants (30 percent) running for national positions this year are women, based on the Commission on Elections’ certified list of candidates for the 2022 elections.

Regardless of our differing opinions on their respective effectiveness as leaders, the fact that we’ve had two female heads of state already speaks of our high regard for women’s capability to lead. It’s also interesting to note that both women had come to power after tumultuous political periods.

So how do we explain why women remain a minority in our country’s political leadership? How much do Filipinos truly trust women leaders? These questions are worth asking as we get closer to the day when we cast our votes once again to elect a new administration.

A nuanced view of women’s political empowerment

From March 17 to 21, EON’s think tank, EON Trust Central, in partnership with mobile market research firm Tangere, conducted the Women in Power study. It involved 4,000 male and female respondents from all over the country across different age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds.

A clear majority of the study’s respondents (75 percent) expressed trust in women leaders, with 65 percent of them believing that having more women leaders in government would benefit the country. However, only 23 percent said that other than gender, they didn’t see any difference between female and male public servants.


The rest still make a distinction between genders.

The dissonance between these opinions speaks of the Filipinos’ complex view of women in public service. Of course, experiences (or a lack of them) inform an individual’s outlook. But to get to the root of it, we must also study the intersection of gender, socioeconomic class and access to power through the perspectives of various demographic groups.

For example, among lower-class Filipino families, having a multiple-income household is necessary, with mothers and children of any gender pitching in to augment finances. The comparatively high level of trust in women leaders (77 percent) among the lowest income households isn’t surprising then. In their communities, women doing their share and even taking the lead in providing for their families is common.

However, the group is skeptical of female government officials, with only 65 percent believing that having more of them would be good for the country. How much of this can be attributed to sexism? And given all the promises that those living on or below the poverty line hear every campaign season, how much of it is also due to unfulfilled promises and their disbelief that having more women politicians would significantly change their circumstances?

In a similar vein, only 59 percent of Mindanaoans believe that having more women in public office would be good for the country. Their skepticism can’t simply be credited to traditional cultural or patriarchal views, however, as their 76 percent trust level in women leaders is higher than National Capital Region’s 72 percent. How much does the lack of national representation of women leaders from Mindanao figure into their perspective?

The long road ahead to true equality and progress

In an ideal and meritocratic world, gender shouldn’t matter when it comes to leadership. But we don’t live in such a world. In our survey, for instance, adjectives such as “weak” and “emotional” were still used to differentiate women leaders from their male counterparts, though fortunately only by a few respondents.

We may have had several prominent women leaders in government since Filipinas received the right to vote and run for public office in 1937, yet they’re still too few and far in between, especially in positions where they could significantly shape national policy and decision-making. Women officials are also often relegated to departments traditionally perceived as “women’s concerns” like health, education and social welfare and rarely, if ever, assigned to male-dominated fields like economics and national defense.

Like an endless feedback loop, this under-representation helps perpetuate persistent gender stereotypes that further heighten the barriers to women’s political empowerment. This is unfortunate because there is power in diversity and inclusivity. The country can only benefit from having more women bringing their perspectives and expertise to the table.

But as our survey results indicate, it is also bigger than just gender; its intersection with other issues must be addressed too. So far, our two female presidents belong to Luzon-based political clans and we know that such clans have influence over who gets to occupy high-level positions in our government. Our power system and structures badly need reform so that more women from different cultural and economic backgrounds can run for public office even without powerful backers—and win based on platforms and principles.

Having more women in power will not only minimize the gender gap and eliminate bias. It will also pave the way for the government to serve the public better, especially the disenfranchised. Holding up the sky is a massive undertaking, but the job becomes easier when we let more women pitch in. INQ

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and not the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP). The author is chair of the MAP Health Committee, vice chair of the MAP CEO Conference Committee, and chair and CEO of The EON Group. Feedback at [email protected] and [email protected]

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