Of the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting this week in the California with President Barack Obama, not a single one is a woman.
Although across Southeast Asia leadership by women is not new given the region’s legacy of dynastic politics, leadership at the top levels is missing. There has been a recent increase of women in executive positions that suggests a power shift – but not at the top. Still, the change that has occurred holds both political and cultural implications in the region’s approach to conflict resolution and in strengthening gender equality in post-Confucian societies.
Here are the numbers of popularly elected females. In 2013, Park Geun Hye became South Korean President; Aung San Suu Kyi led her NPD party to another landslide victory in December 2015 and will likely play a major role in shaping her government despite a constitutional provision engineered by the junta to keep her from the presidency. In January 2016, Taiwanese Tsai Ing-wen was the first woman to be elected as the island’s president.
Meanwhile, at an international level, experts are also predicting that current contest could yield the first female Secretary-General in United Nations history after the present incumbent Ban Ki-moon announced he would be stepping down by the end of this year. The growing presence of women in leadership signifies a positive change – especially in Confucian patriarchal societies where women are supposed to remain in a position of servitude and (political) silence.
There are certain common traits in these women - the most obvious being their elite upbringings and affiliations. With the exception of Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, all the aforementioned female leaders in the region were (or are) closely related to formerly prominent male politicians.
For instance Park Geun-hye is the daughter of a former president – she became the first lady of South Korea at the age of 22 when her mother was assassinated. Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the current Bangladesh Prime Minister is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father and first President of Bangladesh. Suu Kyi is the daughter of a charismatic Myanmar leader ending British rule in what was then Burma. Former Thai Prime Minister (2011-2014), Yingluck Shinawatra is the younger sister of a former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced into exile following a military coup.
The list goes on. Some of these women rose to the forefront in a context of political unrest and oppression at the hands of failed male-authority and military-dominated authoritarian regimes. Others gained popular acceptance through their fathers, husbands, or brothers’ previous national struggle for independence and/or populist policies and rhetoric. Indeed, dynastic political culture still commands widespread acceptance in East and Southeast Asia.
A second attribute found among these women is their high level of education. Park earned a BA in electronic engineering, Aung San Suu Kyi a Master’s at Oxford and then a MPhil at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS); while Tsai Ing-wen holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Yingluck Shinawatra earned Master’s in Public Administration from Kentucky State University in the US.
Although education is seen as universal and a natural trajectory in human development, research nonetheless suggests such a direction do not come naturally to many women. Indeed many Asian women, heavily influenced by cultural norms, show little desire to become more senior as women systematically underestimate their own abilities. However mentalities are seemingly evolving among the younger generation. Over the past 30 years, women's education in East and Southeast Asia has strengthened their own confidence as well as dispelling the perception of male politicians’ superiority.
All of this explains another common feature, albeit controversial, that these female leaders seek to refrain from being portrayed as an archetypal wife. Take Park and Tsai - both extremely private individuals who never wed, with the former noted for considering the nation her family. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi also had to put the family second when it came to her love and devotion to the country, remaining separated from her family for more than two decades.
Compared with Westerners, Asians are more likely to agree that women's happiness lies in marriage – within which women are expected to take sole responsibility for family and household duties. Whether this explains the decision to value a position of power over family is evidently apparent with the prevailing social pressures on professional advancement for women.
Most of all, these women, despite their elite backgrounds, were all elected through democratic electoral processes. It underlies an aspiration for change. Women have played key roles in the popular democratic movements that in the majority of cases succeeded in bringing about political evolution and democratisation in their respective country.
In the realm of politics, gender imbalance is often exacerbated in situations of conflict since men and women have differentiated access to power or leadership. Seldom are the participants in a decision to go to war female. Instead women represent the bulk of civilian casualties and bear the socioeconomic brunt of post-conflict rebuilding. And yet violence against women (and children) has become a growing feature of armed conflict, with rape sometime adopted as a shaming military strategy.
Underrepresentation of women, still, is rife across all levels of political systems in the region. Women representatives constitute 23.4 percent of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), its equivalent to a parliament. In the newly elected National Committee of the 200 members of the National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, women make up only 10 percent.
Building quality representation in local female leadership may be the key ingredient to a peaceful society as empowered women can transform and resolve conflict. Female characteristics are increasingly recognized and included in common notions of leadership, as being less selfish, fairer and more resilient to outside pressure than their male counterparts, reflected in a notably lower corruption rate among female leaders. In addition, such behaviors engender a higher probability of the state adopting people-oriented policies, allotting the required attention to social welfare and public benefits.
Female leadership in Asia, however, remains in its nascent stages and far from a viable alternative political model. Aung San Suu Kyi faces the challenges of government capacity to conduct economic reform and resolve ethnic conflict. South Korea confronts a new cycle of 2016 legislative elections in which opponents may form alliances against President Park; alongside economic and social problems Tsai’s government also needs to resolve the lingering cross–strait relations with mainland China.
Although persistent in their efforts to be heard and resolute in defence of their new sense of expression, leadership by women sadly still seems to resort to accommodating the demands and ground rules of men. For the future, it is high time that women’s education is secured, their actions and achievements publicized and their commitment to participation in the political arena remain undeterred.
Chau Bao Nguyen is a PhD candidate at University of East Anglia, UK; and a lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. She also works part-time in the Vietnamese edition of BBC News.