Gender laws pave way for Tsai's win

Ms Tsai waving to supporters after winning the presidential election last Saturday. She is the first woman without political lineage in Asia to head a government.
Ms Tsai waving to supporters after winning the presidential election last Saturday. She is the first woman without political lineage in Asia to head a government.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Legislation has made it easier for women in Taiwan to climb the ranks in workplaces

Taiwan's President-elect Tsai Ing-wen has not only broken the gender barrier to win the highest office in the land, but she is also the first woman without any political lineage in Asia to head a government.

This was made possible because laws were introduced from 2002 to enforce gender equity and equality in schools and workplaces here, making it easier for Taiwanese women to climb the ranks, say analysts. Also, today's voters are averse to politicians with connections to influential political families, they add.

Ms Tsai, 59, a former law professor whose father was a businessman, won the presidential polls in a landslide victory last Saturday.

Her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), also romped to victory and got its first-ever parliamentary majority in the legislative elections.

Modern Women's Foundation deputy chief executive Lin Mei-hsun said: "People used to think it's a joke that a woman wants to be a president, but Ms Tsai has proven that a woman can do well and reach the top on her own merit."

She added that Ms Tsai's win is instructive to young women in that they "don't have to play second fiddle" and, if given opportunities, "can take up big responsibilities".

But the President-elect is not the only woman making a difference in Taiwanese politics. Women make up close to two-fifths (37.2 per cent) of the newly elected 113-seat Parliament - one of the highest rates of women in Parliament in East Asia. In Singapore, women take up 22 per cent of seats.

Women politicians appeal to voters like designer Roy Hsieh, 31, who feels they read the ground better. "They are patient and seem more willing to listen to people. That is very important," he said.

Indeed, Ms Tsai, has said that men and women alike can learn from female leaders for qualities such as being attentive, flexible, tolerant and calm.

She has followed in the footsteps of women stalwarts of the DPP, such as party founder and Kaoh-siung Mayor Chen Chu as well as Ms Annette Lu, the first Taiwanese woman vice-president, who served between 2000 and 2008.

In that time, woman power got a boost with the passing of the Gender Equity Education Act in 2002 and the Gender Equality in Employment Act two years later. Taiwan's Parliament also has a quota system that reserves political positions - for example, a third of all seats in the legislature - for women.

Elsewhere in Asia, only South Korea has a current woman leader. But President Park Geun Hye, who took office in 2013, is the daughter of former president Park Chung Hee.

In Singapore, the highest-ranking woman politician to date is Ms Grace Fu, who was appointed only last year as the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.

Ms Tsai has had to grapple with sexism, which is still entrenched in a society that favours boys over girls and prefers women to be stay-at-home mums. She has frequently been criticised for being unmarried and had to fend off questions about her sexuality.

Associate Professor Chen Yi-chien of Shih Hsin University's Graduate Institute for Gender Stu-dies said Ms Tsai's presidency will raise expectations of women's groups. "This is only the start, Taiwan will not be changed overnight into a gender-equal society just because we have a female leader," she said, adding reforms must continue.

But postgraduate student Su Zhen-lin, 29, who voted for Ms Tsai, said: "She is not just a woman president but also the island's president, who has to meet the needs and interests of all the people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Gender laws pave way for Tsai's win'. Print Edition | Subscribe