Taiwan, the place to be a woman in politics

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Photo of Democratic Progressive Party president Tsai Ing-wenImage source, Getty Images
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Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party chair Tsai Ing-wen will become the island's first female leader

On Friday, Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan's first female president.

It has never been a burning ambition of the cat-loving former law professor to be president, and she is virtually unique among East Asia's female leaders.

Unlike South Korea's President Park Geun-hye and the Philippines' former President Corazon Aquino, Thailand's former PM Yingluck Shinawatra, she does not follow a father, brother or husband who was in a position of power.

That is not unusual in Taiwan.

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DPP chair Tsai-Ing wen says in a post that she is "happiest" when she has time to play with her cats, Cookie and A-Tsai.

Many of Taiwan's female politicians, including former Vice-President Annette Lu, Kaohsiung City Mayor Chen Chu, and chair of the Kuomintang party Hung Hsiu-chu, rose to powerful positions without having come from a political family. They have largely made it on their own.

Women also shine in Taiwan's parliament. The island's women legislators are even seen leading the charge in Taiwan's infamous parliament scuffles.

Following January elections, it now has a record percentage of women legislators at 38%, putting Taiwan far ahead of Asian countries, the international average of 22%, and most nations, including the UK, Germany, and the US.

So why are only four of Ms Tsai's 40 cabinet members women?

The cabinet spokesman blamed it on a dearth of experienced women in her party because it has been out of power for so many years and on the fact that women were elected to other posts. But he did admit that some women had turned down the offer of a job at the top table.

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Former presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu rose to the position of Kuomintang party chairman without having come from a political family

One of them, 65-year-old Ho Mei-yueh, a former economics minister, told me she had devoted 33 years of her life to government, putting her own needs second while also raising a family. She just wants some time to herself now. It's the perennial question of a work-life balance for many women.

"I had to work and look after the kids. The only person I could neglect was myself," said Ms Ho. "Would a man my age turn down the offer? Men, when they are young, they don't have to give so much of themselves, because the burden of taking care of the children does not fall on them. To many men, their job is their life."

Still, it is so natural in Taiwan to see women in politics that little fuss has been made about Ms Tsai's gender.

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A scuffle breaks out between legislators in Taiwan's parliament in 2013

But take a closer look and it's clear that quotas are behind the relatively high percentages of Taiwanese women in politics. They stipulate that women must get half the "at-large" seats in the legislature and one out of every four seats in electoral districts in local council elections.

"It's in the constitution that there should be special positions for women. Only Scandinavian countries have adopted similar policies. It's certainly unique in Asia and other parts of the world," said Joyce Gelb, a New York-based professor, who has studied Taiwanese women's participation in politics.

What has also helped was a commitment to women's representation even in the early decades of the Republic of China's existence, a history of women's activism, as well as a society with many highly educated and professional women able to take up positions of leadership, scholars say.

Over the years, the number of women legislators has far exceeded the quota, leading some to argue it's no longer needed.

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Chen Ting-fei is one of several female politicians in Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party

But Ms Tsai's inability to put more women in her cabinet shows quotas are still useful to balance the scale. In elections without quotas such as for city mayors or county magistrates the percentage of women elected is only around 15%. Far fewer women run in elections compared to men.

"When it's a one-to-one race, men still tend to fare better because of their prior experience and personal connections..We still do not sufficiently nurture women to go into politics and government," said Chen Man-li, the director of an alliance of women's groups and newly-elected lawmaker.

Image source, Getty Images
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Only four of Tsai Ing-wen's 40 Cabinet members are women
Image source, Getty Images
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Former Economy Minister Ho Mei-yueh says she had put aside her own needs while raising her family in her 33 years working in government

Women's groups say there is no doubt having women politicians makes a difference; it's easier to pass laws favourable to women, including on maternity leave and childcare.

Nathan Batto, a Taipei-based Academia Sinica scholar who has studied women's participation in politics, says that with quotas political parties pay more attention to grooming female politicians.

But still the greater challenge is changing society's views to make it easier for women to enter and crucially to stay in politics and that goes back to work-life balance.

Image source, AFP
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Women have to have the support of their spouse and family before entering a career in politics, according to a Taipei scholar

"Women have a lot of obstacles in their way that men don't in developing their political careers," said Mr Batto. "They have to have their family and spouse's support. The approval of your spouse is usually more automatic for men than women."

Taiwan is leagues ahead of other places, but it's worth noting that none of the top four female political figures in Taiwan are married or have children.