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Taiwan’s success on gender is harder than it looks

If any economy in Asia has come close to perfecting the mix of policies and incentives needed to empower women it is Taiwan, a place finally making global headlines for the right reasons.

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When Taiwan, an island of 24 million people, makes news, it’s usually because of cross-strait tensions with China. Or for any number of corruption scandals over the last 15 years.

These days Taiwan, under the leadership of its first female president, is the toast of the coronavirus era, a flattening-the-curve standout. Yet Tsai Ing-wen’s government is excelling in another way too: positioning Taipei as an alternative money centre to neighbouring Hong Kong, which now faces the heat from China. And the dynamics that make Taiwan a gender-equality exemplar also make it a compelling candidate for one of Asia’s next financial meccas.

“We are not totally [gender] equal yet, but we are moving ahead,” says Connie Chang, director general of the National Development Council’s department of overall planning.

“We still believe that we need to try more to solve this issue, but we are ahead compared to Japan, Korea and other Asian countries.”

And how. The World Bank ranks Taiwan number one in Asia for women’s legal rights. Along with boasting a twice-elected female president, and a female vice president in the early 2000s, Taiwan has Asia’s highest proportion of women representatives in the legislature at 42%.

Taiwan’s financial sector is a case study with plenty of lessons for a notoriously male-dominated region.

Taiwan elevated women bankers earlier than many other countries
Christie Chang, Citi
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“We started early,” says Christie Chang, chairwoman of Citi’s Asia Pacific corporate banking unit, who is based in Taipei.

Chang’s reference here is to how Taiwanese lawmakers dating back to the 1960s took gender equality more seriously than their peers. By 2000, the constitution was amended to mandate that at least a quarter of the seats in the legislature should go to women. As such, finance industry bigwigs like Chang were not all that surprised to see voters elect Tsai in 2016, and then re-elect her this year. It seemed the natural progression of where Taiwan has been, and where it’s headed.

“I have never felt that because I’m a female that I had less opportunity to be promoted,” Chang says. “In fact, I don’t think that being either female or male is a factor. Basically, there is no gender discussion with the bank.”

Elsa Chiu, a managing director in Credit Suisse’s investment banking and capital markets department in Taipei, agrees that Taiwan’s political and corporate culture seem to have figured out the special sauce when it comes to gender diversity.

“I think I am very fortunate that I haven’t felt there is a glass ceiling – here at Credit Suisse and also in Taiwan,” Chiu says.

A beacon

Taiwan’s economic journey is, of course, a unique one. It has spent the last 70 years in an uneasy limbo, caught between China, which views it as a breakaway province, and its place in the democratic world of nations. Possessing scant national resources, Taipei harnessed the hard work and ingenuity of its labour force, male and female, with a liberalism unmatched in the region.

“Taiwan is called the orphan of Asia, but it has overcome its isolation by serving as a beacon of liberal democracy and civil liberties in the region,” says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“It’s the first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage, demonstrating a commitment to diversity and tolerance sadly absent in Japan, South Korea and China. It is an exemplar of liberal values that contrasts with Beijing’s stifling of dissent.”

In earlier times, the siren call of Hong Kong’s proximity to the mainland, its strong laissez-faire ethos, its seamless transport links to Shanghai and Shenzhen and its unrivalled access to tycoons across the Pearl River Delta, relegated Taipei to second-tier status in the Greater China region.

I am very fortunate that I haven’t felt there is a glass ceiling
Elsa Chiu, Credit Suisse
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That is changing following Chinese president Xi Jinping’s aggressive clampdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy. In early August, publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists, was arrested for suspected collusion with foreign forces under the new national security law.

But even before China’s chilling move in July to effectively end the “one country, two systems” principle promised in 1997, Tsai’s team was telling international journalists in Hong Kong that they were welcome in Taipei. Then on July 1, Tsai’s government opened a new office to fast-track residency requests from Hongkongers fearing the worst.

For many, Taiwan’s proximity and cultural similarities make it a logical Plan B.

To emphasize the point, Tsai dispatched her top spokeswoman, Kolas Yotaka, who is also a trailblazer as the first Taiwanese aboriginal to speak for a president.

The island’s identity as a hotbed of diversity in Asia is proving to be an important selling point. It’s also a reminder, though, that Tsai’s government still has considerable heavy lifting to do to level the gender playing field and tackle sexism.

For example, Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party triumphed with 57% of the votes in the election early this year, but that landslide win was marred somewhat by the jamboree of misogyny surrounding the contest.

Opponents and the media gave Tsai grief for not being married and for being childless. The chairman of the opposition Kuomintang Party derided her as “an unlucky woman”. Tsai’s main election rival, Han Kuo-yu said a woman’s place was at home. Even an official in Tsai’s own party once declared that “the one wearing a skirt is never suitable to be a commander-in-chief”.

It’s a reminder that while Japan and Korea have dreadful gender-empowerment scores, Taipei can be just as bad as Tokyo and Seoul when it comes to rank sexism in political circles. Nor is it just directed at Tsai, but can also be directed at other female lawmakers bringing fresh voices to the national legislature.

This kind of sexism in politics is very malicious
Lai Pin-yu, Democratic Progressive Party

Take Lai Pin-yu, a 28-year-old who in February became the youngest person ever to win a legislative seat in Taiwan, running with Tsai’s DPP. Lai’s enthusiasm for Japanese cosplay (dressing up in costume) seemed to irk many men in social media circles, particularly fans of her male political opponent.

“I think this kind of sexism in politics is very malicious,” she says. “It’s intended to make voters feel that women like us, who don’t measure up to the values of the traditional patriarchy, can’t be trusted.”

Even so, such legislative success speaks to how institutionalized Taiwan’s gender equality is becoming. Of the 113 legislators from four different political parties, 47 are women. That’s partly a product of election regulations. They stipulate that half of each party’s final candidates for 34 so-called proportional representation seats must be women.

More still must be done, Kolas says, to ensure more women can rise to the top levels of government.

In the field of banking, women have risen up the ranks of Taiwan’s financial institutions, yet many of the executives interviewed by Asiamoney have tales about the patriarchy that they would prefer to forget.

For Citi’s Chang, it was one too many instances of turning up for meetings with male clients in the early 2000s. All too often, her introduction was met with a look of surprise and the predictable, but dreaded words: “Oh, a woman.”

“For the first few rounds, I was not very comfortable being the only female,” says Chang. “But after a while, I decided that I cannot change that fact. So I decided to convert this to my advantage.”

By 2010, Chang was president of Citi in Taiwan.

Chiu, at Credit Suisse, recounts a story about how far she would go early on in her career to win a client’s trust and secure a deal – or as she puts it, “ambitious pitching”. One client, in particular, had no time to meet her because he was flying off on urgent business.

“So, I decided to ride in the car to the airport. And he’s flying to Hong Kong so I flew to Hong Kong with him. After he landed, I came right back to Taiwan. I was fearless, to go ahead and do that. And then I got a mandate.”

In Taiwan, one also encounters scenarios that almost sound like they couldn’t happen anywhere else. Take the example of Yaling Chiu, who heads the financial management department at CTBC Financial Holding.

Eighteen years ago, she was happily employed at Citi when she was headhunted by Taiwan’s biggest banking institution. Great opportunity, terrible timing, thought the five-month pregnant banker.

“I was ready to decline this opportunity,” she says. Yet CTBC shocked her by making an offer anyway.

“They said the most important thing is to recruit the talent we need,” she says. “I was so surprised.”

Record of growth

Taiwan’s enviable gender record is an important driver of growth. All the available research, from the World Bank to the IMF to the World Economic Forum, shows that economies underuse female talent at their own peril. Those that narrow gender gaps enjoy stronger labour pools, innovation, productivity and overall competitiveness.

In Taiwan’s case, finance stands out. “In our banking industry, females are at a high percentage,” Chang notes. Of Citi Taiwan’s 4,000 employees, 70% are women. The management team, Chang says, is roughly 60% female.

Over time, the industry has benefited from law changes and regulatory tweaks, including legal protections, and incentives to lower gender-pay gaps, remove barriers to women entering the labour force and establish standards by which financial companies should operate to avoid reputational risk.

As well as Taiwan is doing, though, it can always do better. Many executives say even more flexible schedules could go a long way toward helping women to balance work and life. Increased options, and financial support, for childcare and elder care were mentioned early and often. The same with increased maternity leave.

At Credit Suisse, Chiu notes the importance of modernizing the education system – away from rote learning toward a more free-thinking curriculum. Her suggestion: “Improve the education so that it fosters a lifetime passion of learning and is more connected with real life.”

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