Philippines: Women and power

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Philippine’s Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (left) shake hands with a student during ‘Women vs Strongman: Filipinas Resisting’ forum at the University of the Philippines. AFP

How often has it been said that the Philippines is among the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to women?

In the 2018 Global Gender Gap report released by the World Economic Forum, the Philippines placed eighth out of 149 countries ranked on four categories: labour force participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

At 38.46 per cent, almost half the country’s workforce are women, according to World Bank figures from 1990 to 2018. Government statistics, meanwhile, show functional literacy among Filipino women is at 88.7 per cent against the men’s 84.2 per cent, as of 2008.

And while only 19.92 per cent of electoral posts are occupied by Filipino women against the 79.75 per cent share of men, the Philippines has always prided itself on having had two women presidents.

With the coming national elections in May, women candidates have again become as visible, if not more so, than their male counterparts – and for reasons that many have found to be disquieting.

Sara Duterte, Imee Marcos, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Grace Poe, Imelda Marcos, Cynthia Villar, Nancy Binay, Pia Cayetano, Lani Cayetano, Joy Belmonte, Leni Robredo: As president, vice president, House Speaker, senator, vice mayor, ec cetera., these women have certainly proven their mettle in carving vital places for themselves in the political hierarchy. Shouldn’t women rejoice that more of them are now owning positions of leadership and power that used to be reserved mainly for men?

But did they, really? Haven’t many of the country’s women leaders, in fact, inherited the mantle of power from their male patrons – fathers and spouses, whose names familiar through generations have made political pelf their virtual birthright?

Still, why fault these women for grabbing what is within reach and often insisted upon them by their patriarch and his constituents? “Public service is a family tradition” was a mantra drilled into them early on. And if we then cast doubt on these women’s capacity for leadership roles, are we not just betraying widely held biases against women who reach for the sky?

Women, studies suggest, are often viewed negatively for behaving in the same forceful and confident manner as men do.

A new study by the New York Times best-selling authors Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield indicated that gender bias in the workplace is real, with women’s perceived competency dropping by 35 per cent when they are judged as being “forceful” or “assertive”. Men behaving the same way only had a 22-per cent drop.

Similar studies show that success among women often mean a slide in perceived likability, the opposite conclusion among successful men.

Philippine politics appears to be different terra, however. Many female heirs-apparent in these parts have not had much problem behaving like the powerful men who had mentored them.

For those in the women’s movement who had encouraged more women to get into politics in the belief that they would bring with them the nurturing, consensus-building and no-one-left-behind sensibility of a female head of the household, such crass one-of-the-boys behavior is unsettling.

Power corrupts – and apparently, some women in leadership positions are as susceptible, as grasping and as unscrupulous as the worst of men.

But all is not lost. All of us, men and women, citizens of all stripes, should be able to imagine – aspire for – a world where voters would look closely into a candidate’s character, background and track record and ask: Is integrity an important issue with her? Does the candidate wield power as a communal vehicle that would take others along? Has she joined her voice against the wrongs perpetrated by those in power? What laws has she pushed and supported? Does she respect the messy processes of democracy?

Even as women candidates are learning to navigate the slippery slope of power-sharing, so too must ordinary women, whose most basic but empowering act is to choose well, and with eyes wide open, this May. Philippine Daily Inquirer)/Asia News Network