Way back in the 1980s, I worked in a major Philippine organisation in Manila—one of the few women in a senior position. I remember my female colleague was asked to resign allegedly for habitually leaving work early in order to pick her son up from school. I was hungry for recognition then, but when I landed a major contract, there were whispers that I slept with the sponsor. We women sat quietly during senior management meetings because we were not expected to contribute our ideas so that when we did, we felt ignored. It was a difficult time, simply because we were a few women in a sea of men, and the one or two who belonged to the boys’ club had to stay after work to play poker and drink beer with them. No surprise that one of these women never married, and the other didn’t have children.
This was the world of professional corporate women managers then. Luckier were those who were family members working for their family’s firms, professionals in private practice, the self-employed, and the entrepreneurs--they didn’t have to confront the same issues. After all, the colour of money knows no gender, and so did family relations. In fact, daughters often became corporate treasurers because supposedly they could be trusted with money matters.
Now-a-days, I am told, things have changed, even for professional corporate women. There are more women than men in Philippine universities, and these university graduates come to the working world generally equipped with more skills than men.
Further, the spirit of feminism, although still considered a dirty word, has spread to Philippine society—thanks to western news reports and Hollywood movies. As a consequence, younger men raised in the 1980s and 1990s, many of whom are starting to assume leadership positions today, are relatively more open to the idea of women occupying senior and top-level positions in Philippine industry. In a survey done in 1985, it was reported that only about 10% of Filipino senior managers were women./1/ Approximately 30 years later, the figure has risen to 32.8%. /2/ Compare this to 41% in the U.S. and 29% in Germany, with the highest representation found in the Scandinavian countries. (South Korea remains the laggard). /3/
The policy-setting Board of Directors has also adopted a more liberal mindset: from the idea of tokenism to the notion that women do bring about a different perspective reflecting the differing needs of their stakeholders. Hence, more than the concept of social equity, increasing the participation of women in decision making is gradually being recognised as good for business. It makes sense to optimally use the often diverse and untapped talents and skills in about 50% of the Philippine population.
What exactly are these “talents and skills” of women? Now that the Philippines is transiting from agriculture-based to service-based industries, policy makers cite the need for androgenous management styles, thus appreciating the contributions of women—from their nurturing and empathetic tendencies to their supposed belief in fairness./4/ Also, it is often reasoned that women are generally more honest and less corrupt than men.
Personally, I am not very sure that women are inherently morally superior to men. However, I would hazard a guess that for professional women to rise to the top of a large organisation, that organisation has to have a meritocratic culture. Thus, it is meritocracy rather than female attributes that discourages corruption. Currently, however, power in the Philippines is still often inherited--from family dynasties in politics to succession rights in Filipino businesses. Even gifted entrepreneurs have to have not only the necessary wherewithal but also the resources in terms of social connections and scarce financial capital.
If we wish to democratise leadership positions so that entry barriers do not preclude other ambitious and capable women from ascending the management ladder, we must address the remaining major obstacles facing career women today. The so-called glass ceiling still retains the boundary between middle and senior management, i.e., competent women can relatively easily progress to middle management where they may even outnumber men, but they remain there to coast along unless and until they exit organisational life to put up their own businesses.
Some of the oft-repeated criticisms of women managers include their lack of vision and their weak political skills, so necessary in senior management levels./5/ Again, rather than inherent flaws, these are perhaps the results of their lack of exposure and mentorship. As it is often difficult to get cross-gender mentorships--especially in a traditional culture such as the Philippines--it is therefore incumbent on women in senior positions to mentor their female subordinates.
Unfortunately, in situations where there are too few women in powerful positions, what is sometimes manifested is the "queen bee syndrome", i.e., the tendency of some women to protect their turf from the encroachment of would-be competitors, indeed a very destructive setting for mentorship.
Nonetheless, more than the office climate, the biggest hurdle faced by career women today is in the home front. Then as now, supportive husbands remain the necessary pre-condition for career success. Although gone are the days when the Eliza Dolittles had to fetch the slippers of Professor Higginses, attitudinal changes in Filipino husbands have only been incremental since I started my research on the subject 35 years ago. Filipino men still think that their wives have the full responsibility of managing the household and caring for the children. Domestic helpers are after all present to do the tedious work, not realising that the competent ones of yesteryears are getting more difficult to find, and at any rate, child rearing should not be left to these helpers.
Employers thus complain that once married, there is a high degree of absenteeism amongst previously hard-working women, and that these women themselves are sometimes reluctant to assume greater responsibilities. In short, the biggest obstacle to the assumption of women in senior management positions today is their problem of balancing career and family life. /6/
The need for corporate flexibility and other family-friendly policies, on the one hand; and the re-distribution of unpaid work in nurturing the family, on the other hand, will give women (and men) greater choices in the management of their careers.
For this, some restructuring of our civil code is necessary; the examples below are only a few discriminatory statutes in the family and penal codes of the country:
1. As head of the family, the husband is the administrator of the conjugal assets, so that in case of disagreement, it is the husband’s decision which shall prevail,/7/
2. The father and mother shall jointly exercise parental authority over the persons of their common children but in case of disagreement, the father’s decision shall prevail,/8/
3. The father and mother shall jointly exercise legal guardianship over the property of unemancipated common children, but in case of disagreement, the father’s decision shall prevail,/9/
4. Adultery can only be committed by the wife and proof of the sexual act will suffice. For the husband, the sexual act will only be illegal if it is committed under scandalous circumstances, or if the husband co-habits with his mistress. Further, adultery carries the penalty of imprisonment whereas concubinage only carries the penalty of the husband not being allowed within a 25 km radius from the family home, and only for a certain length of time./10/
Until the legal codes give wives a more level playing field, it will remain difficult for them to exercise a sufficient degree of authority over family affairs. The children’s welfare and financial dependence are the two most frequently cited reasons why many wives are shackled to abusive relationships.
Of course, if we compare these to the historical evolution of women’s rights, we have come a long way. Pre-historic societies were often matriarchal, i.e., power resided in women. Then with the rise of civilisations, including the revolutions in technology and warfare, men gained ascendency. In the ensuing periods, we hear little about the status and role of women. But we do know, for example, that during the European Middle Ages women were considered barely as chattels, to be traded by men. Unless they entered the convent, most were unschooled and illiterate. Likewise, women were not allowed to own property until well into the 19th Century, and it was only during the 20th Century that women were given the right to vote, ushering the growing emancipation of women. In short, it has only been during the past hundred years that we are seeing exponential improvements in the empowerment of women.