Shan-Jan Sarah Liu


A record number of women are serving in the 117th U.S. Congress, symbolizing a jump towards gender equality in U.S. politics, albeit from far gender parity. The recent U.S. elections and women’s movements have certainly seen an increase of women organizing, running in a race, and holding political seats. However, the political representation of women in the U.S. is still far behind some countries in Southeast and East Asia (hereafter Asia) in which women hold a higher percentage of seats in national parliaments than the global average.


According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union data (2019), on global average, women in both the lower and upper houses combined hold 24.5% of the seats. Taiwan and the Philippines exceed this number. Several Asian countries have also prominent female leader figures as heads of state, such as India, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, while many western countries still lag behind in that regard. While it seems like Asian women have had political opportunities to hold powerful positions, what does such representation of women in Asia mean? What are the impacts of such representation? What challenges do women political leaders in Asia still face? These are the questions I explore in this article.


The political status of women in Asia


Asia does not do particularly well in women holding parliamentary seats. As of 2019, women’s representation is ranked the 4th out of 5 regions (IPU 2019). Asia lags behind Americas, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and outperforms the Middle East and North Africa, and the Pacific. Variations exist across Asia. Some countries do exceptionally well in opening up the door for women to engage in politics while some others do not. For example, female legislators take up 42% of the seats in Taiwan’s legislative yuan. At the same time, Japan, another economically advanced country, has an extremely imbalanced nation lower house, in which women only occupy 10% of the seats. The statistics on women MPs in other countries fall within this range.


Women may have exceptional representation in some Asian countries because they have implemented gender quotas. The People's Republic of China and Taiwan have reserved seat system whereas South Korea has legislated candidate quotas. Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines have political party quotas. Although not all these quotas are mandatory, countries that implement them generally do better in women's political representation than those that do not, namely Japan and Myanmar. In particular, the political and post-conflict transitions in the region give many countries the opportunity to implement gender quotas (True et al. 2012). Although the positive impact of gender quotas on the political representation of Asian women is generally aligned with what has been founded in other parts of the world (Paxton and Hughes 2010), other research also demonstrates that quota strategies are not automatic or mechanical in helping women get elected. Instead, gender quota intersects with party system institutionalization, electoral competitive, legal enforcement and social attitudes towards women, in its effect on shaping the representation of women (Tan 2016). 


Although women’s economic participation is a necessary condition for increasing women’s political participation (True et al. 2012), contrary to what research has found in western democracies (Schlozman et al. 1999), women’s employment does not sufficiently lead to their political participation. On the national average, economic development also is not positively associated with women’s political participation in Asia. These findings contradict the modernization theories, which have been found to be effective in western democracies, making the region a crucial area to examine.


Although more evidence is needed, the gender paradox (Iwanaga 2008) that we see in Asia is not entirely non-explanatory. Asia is the only region besides Africa in which women’s political status is not positively aligned with women’s social status (Liu 2018). Women are generally discouraged from participating in public life. Such restriction is also highlighted through women's access to justice, rights, and empowerment in this region. According to the OECD data (2019), the Philippines, Indonesia, and Nepal particularly have various gendered-based discriminatory aspects. They score high on the discrimination against women on discriminatory family code, restricted physical integrity, restricted resources and assets, and restricted civil liberty. Although these measures are not directly related to the political empowerment of women, they imply the sort of hurdles that women have to go through to engage in public affairs. Such discrepancy between women’s political status and social status could explain why western studies do not necessarily apply to this region.


Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.


How does women's political presence shape the region?


If the mechanisms for how women’s political representation works in Asia differs from other parts of the world, how do women’s political presence shape the region? Do female political leaders still make a substantive and symbolic impact?


Extant scholarship finds that women are more likely than men to represent women’s interests, e.g. education, health, and family leave policies (Celis 2008). For example, female legislators are more likely than men to adopt family leave policies (Kittilson 2008). Such substantive representation also does not occur all the time. Women are more likely to represent women’s interests when they have secured their re-election (Höhmann 2019). Do Asian women also represent other Asian women’s interests? Again, because of the regional variation, the results also vary.


On the one hand, female legislators in Hong Kong are found to be more likely to represent women’s interests than men (Tam 2017). Women legislators in Japan and South Korea tend to address women’s issues at a higher rate than men, regardless of party affiliation. However, when taking party membership into account, women of progressive parties are more likely to engage actively with women’s issues (Yoon and Osawa 2017).


On the other hand, the seemingly advanced status of women in Asian politics is complicated. Legislative effectiveness on women-centred bills varies by the gender and party affiliation of the legislators. Male legislators are only successful in co-sponsoring non-women-related bills. The more right-leaning party legislators there are in a co-sponsorship network, the less likely women-centred bills will pass (Shim 2020). Furthermore, although gender quota in South Korea has helped women in the country become more politically empowered, women still have a difficult time pursuing a political career, especially once their terms as PR members end (Lee 2019). Women’s substantive representation is also often dependent on other conditions. For example, case studies of villages in various parts of China show that the higher the quality of democracy, combined with financial resources, enable women to achieve substantive representation (Sargeson and Jacka 2017).


In addition to women representing women’s interests, how else might women benefit from women’s representation? Women political leaders generally are found to enhance women’s political trust, engagement, participation, and empowerment (Barnes and Burchard 2012; Liu and Banaszak 2017). Does this role model effect apply to Asia? Contradictory to western findings showing that women politicians inspire women to engage in politics, Asian legislators create a backlash effect. In the region, not only does an increase in women’s political presence not lead to an increase in women’s political participation, an increase in women’s political presence actually discourages women from engaging in political activities, such as having a political discussion with family and friends, turning up to vote, and participating in campaigns (Liu 2018). This study illustrates that the causal mechanism of the role model effect, which has been found to be so effective in several western democracies (Wolbrecht and Campbell 2007), is context-specific. Moreover, it raises questions on why exactly women legislators in Asia are not seen as role models. Nevertheless, much more research in this area is needed in the region to test and explain women’s symbolic representation in Asia.


Challenges still facing women in Asia


Women in some Asian countries have been able to access powerful positions but does not mean they are free from obstacles. Like female politicians elsewhere, women politicians face biases and double standards. Women fight many battles to be considered a political leader. Their capabilities are often questioned because of the sex to which they are assigned at birth. For example, when the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, ran for the presidency in 2016, her own political party allies questioned her ability to be a president and a commander-in-chief because she belongs to the sex that wears skirts. In addition to defying gender stereotypes, Asian women must possess more credentials to demonstrate that they are qualified to be leaders. For example, the recent national elections in South Korea suggests that women need to be highly educated at a younger age.


Women continue to face double standards and harsher expectations even when they come to power. The impeachment of Park Geun-hye, former president of South Korea, also made women’s groups worry about her negative impact on gender equality in the country. Park ran as the daughter of a former dictator. Her electoral campaigns largely neglected women’s issues. Her impeachment has only given men (and women) the opportunity to say that women are not capable leaders. The scandal could deter others from electing another woman again – a problem we rarely see when men are involved in scandals as they continue to be favoured by voters. Similarly, we see this kind of sentiment as well when Thailand Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, fled the country after she was tried in 2016 when the court found her guilty of charges of abuse of power over the removal of national security chief. Such scandal also worsens people’s confidence in women as leaders. Women may not necessarily be better leaders than men. Nevertheless, when women are corrupt, they face much harsher standards and scrutiny than their male counterparts. Moreover, the general public is likely to attribute to such corruption to their gender, rather than their own individual characteristics.


Where does Asia go from here?


As demonstrated, variation exists across Asia as a region. Mechanisms in which women come into power also may differ from those in other contexts. Moreover, as the impacts of women's political representation may be similar to those in western democracies, the story behind how such mechanism works also needs further research. As women have played important roles in democratic transitions in the region, e.g. the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, back in the 1980s, how women continue to engage in the public affairs and influence the advancing the quality of democracy in the region remains unanswered.


Perhaps most urgently, as Asia experiences, quite a big discrepancy between women's political status and women's social status, reducing such gaps may benefit women from achieving gender equality more comprehensively. As a myriad of strategies can be implemented to enhance gender equality in the region, researchers need to start paying attention to the multi-dimensional aspects of women in politics in Asia – a previously understudied area. Understanding women's political representation in Asia also helps us learn lessons that can be applied to other parts of the world, enhancing the status of women altogether.


Author biography

Dr Shan-Jan Sarah Liu is a Lecturer in Gender and Politics and a member of the PSA. She tweets from @DrSarahLiu. Her email is Image credit: Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr.