SHANGHAI – If, as many expect, the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen is elected as Taiwan’s next president this weekend, she’ll become the island’s first female leader. Given that Taiwan granted suffrage to women less than a decade before the 59-year-old Tsai was born, that in itself would be a remarkable achievement.
What’s equally striking is the contrast to China, which regards the island as a renegade province. Not only has modern China never had a female leader, but unless deeply ingrained cultural and bureaucratic barriers are lifted, it’s also unlikely ever to do so.
That picture would seem to contradict early Communist ideals, which embraced a shared revolutionary burden in which women, in Mao Zedong’s words, held up “half the sky.”
Like so much else in contemporary China, old ideals have diverged from reality. Not only has no woman ever served in China’s top job, but no woman has ever sat on the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member organization that serves as China’s top authority. One step below, two women currently serve in the 25-member Politburo (akin to a U.S. presidential Cabinet), a necessary stepping stone to China’s top job. That brings to seven the number of women who have served in the body since 1949.
Like other East Asian societies, including Taiwan, China continues to be influenced by hierarchical Confucian values. Those values, in turn, “are linked to societal lack of support and even disapproval of women’s leadership,” according to a 2013 joint study by the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the New York-based Asia Society.
For example, during a 2013 panel on women’s leadership at the summer World Economic Forum, a well-known male CEO told the audience: “There must still be division of labor, with men working outside and women at home supporting the family.”
Though few public figures would dare speak so bluntly, the sentiment is far from rare in contemporary China, where single women over the age of 25 are widely known as “leftover,” and highly educated and independently successful women are considered undesirable for marriage.
In the corporate world, stereotyping also plays a damaging role, with women held back from promotion because of fears that they’ll stall their careers to have children. To make matters worse, Chinese law gives white-collar women the right to retire at 55 — a full 10 years before men. Thus, even the most talented often fail to get promotions since employers assume that they’re leaving.
Many of these barriers aren’t unique to China, of course; gender discrimination is common in Taiwan, too, especially in the private sector.
But the road to political promotion is particularly fraught in China. In rural China, for instance, tradition has women marry into their husband’s villages — a huge disadvantage in a culture where local kinship and patronage networks are crucial to launching a political career. Indeed, one study posits a “newcomer premium” of 6.6 years to be on the same political footing as a native woman. The implication — that a woman’s worth reflects her husband’s — echoes throughout China’s political system, further reducing opportunities for advancement.
A drinking-and-karaoke culture that remains critical to political networking puts female officials at a disadvantage. Above all, while the Communist Party’s promotion system is self-professedly meritocratic, it’s also extremely opaque: The whim of entrenched political patrons often decides who moves up and how fast.
By contrast, Taiwan has actively promoted women’s participation in politics, first reserving seats for them in the legislature as early as 1951. Both of the island’s main parties have introduced quotas for the number of female candidates they nominate, while the constitution now sets aside 15 percent of the legislature for women. In 1986, women held less than 10 percent of the seats in Taiwan’s legislature; today they hold one-third, and head 10 central government departments.
True, gender disparities persist: Men run 76 departments. But there’s little question that Taiwan has set an example that China — where 64 percent of women over the age of 15 now participate in the labor force — is going to have to follow at some point. The first step would be admitting that China’s powerful leaders have something to learn from their cross-strait brethren.
Adam Minter is based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.
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