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.