Taiwan Editorial Archive

Toward a New Female Future


Gender Awareness Supports Taiwan's Competitiveness

By Pat Gao, Taiwan Review Staff Writer

Since the emergence of the movement toward a more liberal society at around the time when decades of martial law ended in Taiwan in 1987, the pursuit of women’s rights and gender equality has been an integral part of broader social movements. Now, with significant progress in lawmaking efforts and major amendments to the Civil Code and Criminal Code on women’s issues, Taiwan has one of the world’s more advanced legal frameworks for the protection and fair treatment of women. “In terms of a legal foundation, Taiwan ranks number one in Asia,” says Ho Bih-jen, secretary-general of the National Alliance of Taiwan Women’s Associations (NATWA), which works on coordinating information and resources among more than 70 groups devoted to gender issues. NATWA was established in 2001, the same year that revisions to the Criminal Code made rape cases subject to public prosecution instead of being handled only upon complaint by the victim.

In addition to lawmaking and enforcement efforts, public education is of the utmost importance, says World Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) president Susan Brennan. “It helps shift the way people see issues,” Brennan said during a visit to Taipei on April 24 to attend a 2010 World YWCA Day event. Changing people’s attitudes through mass media campaigns, individual communication, or through schools and other means “can work to share the message that, for the wellbeing of the country as a whole, women’s equality and safety have to be secured,” she says. Brennan had previously visited Taiwan in 1997 to lead workshops focused on the elimination of violence against women as part of a World YWCA Asia Pacific regional meeting.


Reform has not always come about as a straightforward result of women’s activism, however. As Lee Ping—secretary-general of the YWCA of Taiwan and a member of the Committee of Women’s Rights Promotion under the Executive Yuan—pointed out in a speech to government staff on gender mainstreaming, several major laws concerning gender equality have been catalyzed by high-profile events.

Call to Action

Domestic violence, for example, was largely viewed as a private matter and legal penalties for such assaults did not receive much attention until 1993, when a long-abused wife murdered her husband. The case spurred calls for greater protection for women, with the Domestic Violence Prevention Act finally coming into effect in 1998. The woman’s defense lawyer, Wang Ju-hsuan, successfully helped reduce the defendant’s imprisonment term and now serves as the minister of the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA).

Another example occurred in 1987, when scores of female employees were forced from their jobs at the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei and the Kaohsiung City Cultural Center because they were more than 30 years old, got married or became pregnant. Growing social resistance to such restrictive regulations for women eventually led to the promulgation of the Gender Equality in Employment Act in 2002. Two years later, the Gender Equity Education Act came into effect. This piece of legislation, which was intended to develop gender awareness on school campuses, had sad origins in the death of a male student at a junior high school in southern Taiwan’s Pingtung County. Before receiving a fatal head injury sustained in a school toilet in April 2000, the unfortunate boy had frequently been laughed at and teased for being effeminate. The resulting lawsuit, assisted by gender activists and legal experts, found the school principal and two other school administrative staff members guilty of manslaughter for their failure to shape a gender-friendly environment.

Legal protections not only discourage harm from being committed against women in one way or another, but also play a more active role in promoting women’s rights. “A legal basis means a lot as a symbol. The passage of laws concerning domestic violence, for example, signaled a new intervention by the government sector into private family matters,” says Huang Ling-hsiang, vice director of the Foundation for Women’s Rights Promotion and Development. The foundation was set up in 1999 as a nonprofit group funded by the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) and is the operator of the Taiwan Women’s Center in Taipei. Since it began operating in March 2008, the center has worked as the “brain”—as Huang calls it—that conveys and directs financial resources and information to around 130 women’s service centers throughout Taiwan.

Legislation cannot solve all of Taiwan’s gender issues, though. In addition to certain inadequacies in punitive provisions, there are often budgetary and staff shortages for the support networks that are necessary for the laws to be carried out effectively. For one thing, central and local governments have to address the problems of frequently understaffed social welfare departments in dealing with cases of domestic violence.

At the same time, there has been some progress in making gender-related laws more practical and realistic, such as by offering incentives to encourage women to exercise their rights fully. For example, the Gender Equality in Employment Act gives employees the right to a combined eight weeks of paid maternity leave before and after childbirth, as well as up to two years of unpaid parental leave for those who have remained in service for more than one year and have children under the age of three.

Time to Take Leave 

Yet, despite the availability of parental leave, few employees took it until May last year, when a revision to the Employment Insurance Act added a childcare leave allowance of 60 percent of the insured’s salary for up to six months per child. According to figures from the CLA, the total number of applicants for childcare leave in 2008 was just 5,508, while the number jumped to 17,723 in 2009 after the allowance came into effect. In 2009, a total of NT$1.9 billion (US$57.5 million) was spent by the government on parental leave subsidies, with each applicant receiving an average of NT$16,000 (US$485) per month, according to the bureau.

Given that both a mother and father are eligible for up to six months of subsidized parental leave, the plan provides for a total of one year of care for each child. Mothers accounted for 84 percent of parental-leave applicants in 2009; however, the figure was lower than the average of around 95 percent in the previous seven years. “The childcare support system offers greater possibilities for working women to shake off regrets [about taking parental leave],” Huang Ling-hsiang says.

The figures also reflect the long established practice for females to be the first ones to get involved when family matters arise. The reason they do so might be a voluntary choice due to a preference for “maternal values,” which is in no way inferior to the inclination of many men to prioritize their careers, Huang says. On the other hand, Huang says that if women do exhibit less motivation for career advancement, the origins could stem from traditional conceptions of gender roles that lead to greater difficulties for women to get the training and experience necessary to improve their career prospects. “The problems arise less from women themselves than social structures. The point is that women must be given equal opportunities,” she says.

In fact, more often than not, caring for children and the elderly, as well as looking after household affairs, is work done by females. Ho Bih-jen says that women’s movements initially aimed to minimize women’s role as caregivers, but now the movements are readier to accept that aspect of the female experience, and instead call on the government to provide more support in order to ease the workload. The lack of such support could be behind Taiwan’s low birthrate, she says. “Far from being only a household matter, this has a lot to do with economic development and national competitiveness,” Ho says in reference to figures that show just slightly more than one child born to every woman of childbearing age in Taiwan. “Population problems are central to many major social issues,” she adds.

Ho says that if society does not offer sound, inexpensive nursery services and give women more choices in childrearing, many women will choose not to have children or if they do will have just one child, in which case sons are still customarily preferred in Taiwan. According to statistics from the MOI, in 2009 newborn boys outnumbered girls by the ratio of 108.4 baby boys per 100 baby girls, whereas such ratios usually fall from 103 to 107 in the United States and European countries. Although modern society has largely outgrown the need of traditional agricultural communities for manual labor, sons are still favored because they meet traditional mores better than daughters, such as by carrying on the family name. The NATWA secretary-general says there has been general progress in gender consciousness in Taiwan, but that women still receive more support from their extended family for male children, for example, which affects the gender picture significantly. Ho says she is worried about the possible emergence of “extreme sex ratios”—a trend of fewer baby girls—just like that of extreme weather.

Ho urges the government to strengthen its influence in the early childhood education sector given that Taiwan claims a very high penetration rate of early childhood education and care service providers. In 2009, private businesses accommodated around 60 percent of all attendees at kindergartens (for four- to six-year-old children) and roughly two-thirds of all children at nursery schools (for two- to six-year-old children). According to Ho, this stands in contrast with many of their more affordable counterparts in countries in the West that are operated as public or nonprofit organizations.

Need for Childcare 

“Our government allocation of educational resources has disproportionately prioritized the latter stage of higher education over the early childhood period,” Ho says. As a result, early childhood education imposes financial pressure on many young or less affluent parents. For Ho, a greater number of public childcare facilities would not only help individual women by reducing their workloads, but could also have the result of freeing up women to put their skills and abilities to use in the workforce and society at large.

Ho’s views on childcare policy are echoed by Wu Chia-li, a chemistry professor at Tamkang University in Taipei County and president of the Taiwanese Feminist Scholars Association, a group of mostly female university teachers formed in 1993. Wu notes that the government has allocated huge budgets for improving the world ranking of local universities, but suggests that an alternative might be to encourage more talented female teachers to stay at and contribute to their schools. This would require providing more choices and flexibility when it comes to personal and family leave, she says. In fact, Wu points out that there is considerable room for the development of women’s social roles across the board. In Taiwan, the female labor participation rate increased by 3.6 percent to 49.6 percent from 1999 to 2009, but still lagged behind that for men by 16.8 percent last year. Moreover, the female workforce tends to be undervalued in the labor market. “Females account for no less than half of the students at business colleges, but less than 15 percent of higher-level managerial staff in enterprises,” Wu says, “and the average female salary is just three-fourths of male earnings.” She also cites the imbalanced sex ratios of teachers in higher education. According to 2008 statistics from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the percentage of full-time female teachers at elementary schools was 68.5 percent, but dropped to 60 percent at senior high schools and fell further to 34.3 percent at the university level. “The percentages of female principals are comparatively low, too,” Wu says. For example, despite female teachers representing 60 percent of all teachers at senior high schools, women headed only 19.3 percent of those schools in 2008.,/p>

Greater educational attainment also sees student sex ratios tilt in favor of males. Student numbers are more or less evenly divided between the two sexes on entry to university, but males outnumber females in master’s programs and even more so in doctoral programs. Nevertheless, the sex imbalance has been decreasing in recent years. MOE figures for 1998 show that for every 100 female students there were 209.9 males in master’s programs and 394.5 males for doctoral programs. In 2008, those figures had changed to 140 males in master’s programs and 259.1 at the doctoral level per 100 females. Wu says that many female students withdraw from higher learning not because of their ability, but because they are discouraged by the expectations of parents or teachers. “In contrast, backed up by traditional gender conceptions, boys stick it out and show less hesitation about their academic or career choices,” she says. Wu also serves as the leader of a mentoring program funded by the government’s National Science Council for would-be and beginning female scientists and technologists.

Wu says a general rule for a country is that the greater the gender balance, the more economically competitive it will be. Prominent examples are northern European countries such as Sweden. “A female perspective is not just about the struggle for more rights,” she says, “but more significantly it’s also about breaking free from existing gender myths and taking a brand new look at established social systems.” From this angle, the pursuit of gender equality is little less than a systematic revolution that could help to release the power and ability of women everywhere to build a more creative future, not just for Taiwan, but for all of humanity.

All photos by Huang Chung-hsin.

This article was published in Taiwan Review on June 1, 2010. For Taiwan news, editorials, feature articles and more, please go to Taiwan Review.