What does it take for us to value our women leaders?

The Philippines has long been seen as an outlier on the global front of the gender gap, having elected not just one but two women leaders in the last 20 years. So why are places of power still dominated by men?

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On March 19, 2022, in the middle of International Women’s Month, Emerald Avenue glowed pink — a color which descended from decades of gender-normative stereotypes. Hot pink, baby pink, carnation, salmon, flamingo, fuchsia, rose — each shade as unique as every person in the crowd. In that campaign rally called PasigLaban, 80,000 to 137,000 people (depending on whom you ask) stormed the streets to support the sole female presidential candidate for the 2022 elections.

54.6 million women exist across the entire archipelago. Of this number, only one is vying for the country's top position (against eight opponents who are all men). When you consider this, the outlook becomes less rosy.

There is another woman aiming for the country’s highest positions. Her branding is less gender-normative. With a reputation for punching a sheriff, riding motorbikes, and shaving her head, she has a charisma that makes her as feisty as her father. However, she is also only one female going against nine male vice presidential candidates.

If you look further in the local government units, you’ll find even fewer women taking seats of power. According to data company Statista, women compose 28% of the House of Representatives, and 29% of the senate since 2019. Though slightly higher than the global average of 25.5%, this is still far from the 30% which the UN recommends as “the minimum proportion of women in leadership positions, with a view to achieving equal representation.”

Data from COMELEC shows that only 19% of candidates during the 2016 national and local elections were women. The percentage of women elected to office in the same election was slightly higher at 21%.

The numbers don’t add up. By the Philippine Statistics Authority’s latest count, as of 2021, the population’s distribution of college graduates was 13.7% women and 9.8% men. For the academic year 2018 to 2019, there were also more women enrolled in business administration and other related courses, with 156,898 women versus only 76,296 men.

But if we’re producing more educated women than men, why are places of power still dominated by men?

Women are educated to be leaders, but they do not become leaders

The coalition Education Nation or EdNation, which consists of 34 member organizations and 21 education experts, asserts: “The Philippine education system is in crisis. As most 2022 national election candidates tout their post-pandemic recovery plans, education reform should be a priority.”

Given that this election exhibits a glaring lack of women candidates, during a brown bag virtual meeting that the coalition mounted in February, CNN Philippines Life asked the officials of the country’s top schools: What are the gaps in how girls are being formed into leaders?

The officials reiterated the PSA statistics that show that girls succeed better in school than boys.

Lasallian brother and Former Education Secretary Armin Luistro said, “My sense is that women are able to move up but not to the topmost positions.”

The verbiage expressing the inability to “move up to the topmost positions,” or the acts of “selflessly sacrificing themselves for family” and “not aspiring for high positions” places the burden on women.

Economist Bernardo Villegas said, “It’s cultural that women selflessly sacrifice themselves to devoting more of their time to family.”

“And although many of them can become CEOs,” he said, “a lot of them do not aspire for those high positions.”

The verbiage expressing the inability to “move up to the topmost positions,” or the acts of “selflessly sacrificing themselves for family” and “not aspiring for high positions” places the burden on women. But taking on gender roles, which has hindered women from engaging in paid labor or working longer hours, is not so much a matter of choice, but of destiny.

”[Recognizing] the value of women leaders is a challenge that we need to overcome as a society,” said Philippine Business for Education Executive Director Love Basillote.

Edizon Fermin, vice president for academic affairs of National Teachers College, and former high-ranking official at Miriam College, noted that the lack of a variety of women leadership in various contexts has “been flagged several times.”

However, he said that women in education, such as Former Education Secretary Fe Hidalgo who was also present in the call, have contributed significantly to the movement of placing more women in power: “Sa tingin ko,” he said, “unti-unti nating napapalakas ‘yung disposisyon na ang mga pinunong babae ay may kakayahang pagtagpu-tagpuin tayo para mapa-sulong pa ang bayang ito.”

“I think what we need more today is to see that both men and women are capable [and that they have] the same rights and privileges. What matters is leadership.”

Asked if educational institutions must address a gap in how people are being taught to follow women, Secretary Hidalgo answered in the affirmative.

“[Society has made it seem] natural that men [are] for leadership; [while] women have other concerns [like] child development,” she said. She shared that she also experienced gender bias in the sector, which she fought to overcome by asserting herself at work.

“I think what we need more today is to see that both men and women are capable [and that they have] the same rights and privileges,” she said. “What matters is leadership.”

Rising in crises

But women leaders have found an unlikely situation to shine in: a pandemic.

The 2021 research “Women Leaders Transcending the Demands of COVID-19” by Claude-Hélène Mayer and Michelle S. May, which studied how global leaders Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel and Tsai Ing-Wen demonstrated care, empathy, and collaboration through their communication styles. These female leaders were seen to be more effective than their macho populist counterparts in other parts of the globe.

In the Philippines, it was the Department of Health Undersecretary and spokesperson Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire who lent that female voice.

USEC Maria Rosario Vergeire in her office. Photo by JL JAVIER

In an exclusive interview with CNN Philippines Life, Vergeire said that her calm yet firm voice, which became valuable not just for DOH but “for the whole government,” helped assuage the fears of the public and, especially at the start of the pandemic, minimize risks of irrational acts that may have heightened the collective anxiety that was palpable then.

Not surprisingly, she honed her calmness at home.

“I never planned to have this kind of voice or demeanor when I am in front of the public or the media. This is really me,” she said. “Because I am a mother and I speak with my children, my three boys, like this. I have to be calm. I cannot raise my voice at the start [otherwise] they will not listen to me.”

The same is true for her firmness. Later on in the interview, Vergeire revealed that she is a single parent. “I am proud that I have raised them alone. [It proves that] hindi tayo mahina,” she said. “I have to be empowered.”

Women are multi-faceted

It is crucial to point out that there is no one face to define all women leaders.

“One leader of a specific individual will always depend on the setting or environment that she is in,” Vergeire said. “In our case in the country, you’d find different leaders based on setting, based on environment, based on mandate.”

She contrasted Education Secretary Leonor “Liling” Briones and Tourism Secretary Bernadette “Berna” Romulo-Puyat.

“You’d find that Secretary Liling would be more serious and [firm] that throughout the country, everyone should follow her protocols. She’s hard on that and she would always position that our education system should always be on the forefront,” Vergeire said.

Department of Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat in 2018.

In contrast, “Berna is more on the softer side, but she gets things done also,” Vergeire added. “She has that collegial manner of doing things whereby people are more attracted to follow her because she is friendly.”

“These are two different types of leadership, and two different types of women who are doing good in government because they have different characteristics,” she said. “Both show us that leadership potential for women is there.”

Society has dictated that men come first in work or politics. There is also criticism that women leaders, such as the late President Cory Aquino, only come into prominence because of their powerful husbands.

But Vergeire sees a positive side to this.

“Looking at the widow [trope],” she said, “Pinalaki nila yung mga anak nila at nakuha pa nila mag-lead ng country. And that is something very huge.”

“Pag may tumatakbong babae, mas nagiging malaki ang impact,” Vergeire said. ”Ramdam na ramdam mo yung longing ng buong Pilipinas na magkaroon ng parang ‘nanay’ sa top position.”

Department of Education Secretary Leonor Briones.

Two women in the 2022 elections

Maxine Rodriguez, an assistant professor of English at the University of the Philippines, noted that presidential candidate Leni Robredo channels her womanness in her speeches while also defying the patriarchal framework.

Analyzing the announcement of Robredo’s candidacy, Rodriguez said: “Her word choice reflects her self-representation as a fighter, repeating the word ‘laban’ in utterances such as ‘lalaban ako, lalaban tayo’ and ‘ang nagmamahal kailangang ipaglaban ang minamahal.’”

Rodriguez explains: “She has to go against the patriarchal view that women are weak, thus, she represented herself as a fighter. Freedom is also a common theme, especially highlighted in her experience of being a lawyer for abused women: ‘sa wakas, pinili na nilang lumaya.’”

At the same time, Rodriguez observes that Robredo also channels her womanness in her discourse by constantly referring to herself being a mother and homemaker.

“However, she maintains and forwards her womanhood via reinforcing her motherhood,” Rodriguez said. “This observation is especially highlighted as all the other candidates are fathers but none invoke their fatherhood in their respective announcement speeches, which then reinforces the notion that parenthood and child-rearing are traditionally associated with females.”

Contrary to the “motherly” brand of Robredo, the branding of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, also a sole female candidate this time in the vice presidential arena, appears to be on the masculine side. This creates a disparity in how they are viewed. In a Facebook post, writer and researcher Ian Layugan observed: “Sara cut her hair into a boyish bob, rides motorcycles, and shows off her tattoo. Astig, ‘di ba? These all fit into the patriarchal narrative. But when [Leni] removes her heels and gets angkas as a ride to a destination, suddenly it’s all for show.”

Vice President Leni Robredo Robredo also channels her womanness in her discourse by constantly referring to herself being a mother and homemaker. Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

Duterte-Carpio had also vowed to continue her father’s campaign against illegal drugs and crime, but with a twist: a "War on Drugs With Love," which includes more rehabilitation centers, health workers, and livelihood programs for illegal drug dependents.

While seemingly more feminine, however, her initiatives have attracted criticism. Her push for mandatory military service, for example, was called “insensitive to women,” particularly Muslims who have “certain limitations in physicality of movement and even publicly mixing with our men,” senatorial aspirant Samira Gutoc said in a previous interview.

“We have to remember that many female politicians in the Philippines are beneficiaries of political dynasties,” said sociologist and political analyst Nicole Curato. “My sense is [Sara’s] gender is secondary to her last name as the reason for her popularity.”

It should be noted that earlier this month at an LGBT Pilipinas event, Duterte-Carpio said that she is part of the LGBT community. “How can I not love the LGBT when I am part of the LGBT?”

In that event, she said: “Sa gender stereotyping, ang sinasabi nila ang lalaki maikli ang buhok, ang babae mahaba ang buhok. Kaya po minsan, nakikita ninyo maikli ang buhok ko, gusto ko po maging lalaki n’yan. ‘Pag ayaw ko na po maging lalaki, pinapahaba ko po ang aking buhok.

Despite her father’s pronouncement that the presidency is no job for a woman, during this campaign, the younger Duterte adopted a more feminine persona.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting writes: “The first female mayor of Davao City, a video of her punching a local sheriff — to loud applause — went viral in 2011, and her cropped hair and tomboy image has long been part of her public persona.”

“Now she dons a feminine look more often: made-up face, coloured and styled hair, and favoring skirts and dresses over her usual denims. She is playing into the ideal Filipina’s image of typecaste femininity, while at the same time, effectively bucking the antiquated image of women from Filipino political dynasties as nothing more than proxy candidates for the male figure,” the article added. “[She is] defying her father’s loud advice that this is not a job for a woman.”

A 2019 photo of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is the sole female vice presidential candidate in this year's elections..

The article went on to cite a World Values Survey that revealed that most Filipinos still believe that men make better political leaders than women. The article added: “Double standards and traditional gender roles very much hold water in a family-oriented nation, and women are expected to be smart but timid, an effective follower but not a leader.”

“Robredo's leadership style is democratic,” Curato said. She de-emphasizes herself as a sole leader who can save the country. Instead, her emphasis is on people's participation. Everyone needs to get involved to get things right. Emphasizing people's participation is a critical distinction from the narcissism of macho populism where male leaders claim to be the sole savior of the country.”

Filipino feminism

Globally, the gender gap in political leadership remains high, with the UN reporting that as of September 1, 2021, only 26 women serve as heads of state or government in 24 countries. By the UN’s estimates, at this rate gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.

This means that around the world, men will continue to dominate politics.

While the Philippines has long been seen as an outlier on the global front, having elected not just one but two women leaders in the last 20 years, there is still work to be done. Given that many women politicians come from political families, they have been seen to be “more responsive to the interests of their family, rather than those of other women, or may be unable to represent female preferences, as they are often figureheads or benchwarmers of previous relatives,” according to a 2019 study by Julien Labonne, Sahar Parsa and Pablo Querubin.

On this note, Curato points out a problem “with women in power — whether in politics or in boardrooms — when they do not use their power to uplift other women.”

“There's no good reason to celebrate women in power,” Curato says, “if these women do nothing for women who are suffering.”

While the Philippines can boast of having a multitude of women who are making it in the academe, corporate, politics or legislation, there remains millions more women — cis and trans alike — who are victims of domestic violence, economic disadvantages, discrimination, exploitation and prostitution.

“There's no good reason to celebrate women in power,” Curato said, “if these women do nothing for women who are suffering.”

Filipinas experience different layers of oppression, which makes Filipino feminism markedly different from, say, Western feminism.

In an online lecture entitled “Mga Katipunera ng Laguna: Tungo sa Isang Feministang Lapit sa Historiograpiyang Pilipino” streamed by the National Historical Commission in March, Mark Joseph P. Santos, history instructor from CEU-Manila, said that women experience the intersection of oppression because of race, social class, and gender.

“As a woman, she experiences gender oppression from men, and as a worker, she experiences class oppression from capitalism,” he said in Filipino. “Therefore, the oppression she experiences is double.”

“The oppression is even bigger if the female worker is a Filipino. Three layers intersect in her oppression,” Santos added.

He acknowledges that today, women enjoy more rights, however, there is still work to be done.

In the realm of politics, misogynist remarks of leaders reflect their condescension towards women. “When a leader makes a misogynist remark and people applaud him, this shows how deeply entrenched the problem still is,” he said.

“One of the solutions is to include in our qualifications in selecting leaders their stand on gender issues,” he said. “We need to look at misogynist remarks as red flags.”

According to a report by UN Women, “Political accountability to women begins with increasing the number of women in decision-making positions, but it cannot stop there. What is required are gender-sensitive governance reforms that will make all elected officials more effective at promoting gender equality in public policy and ensuring their implementation.”

Activities that support increased participation of women in politics include “pre-electoral training of women candidates,” focused on “the concepts and principles of transformative leadership, politics and communities in order to prepare women for official duties and, if unelected, as active citizens within their local communities.”

The report also cited a presidential debate on gender-based violence and women in politics prior to the 2007 presidential elections in Timor-Leste. UN Women ran workshops for women members of political parties, which resulted in the signing of a landmark commitment to women's political participation.

Structural changes to political frameworks can also increase women’s political aspirations. The Harvard Kennedy School suggests implementing gender quotas: “Power-seeking behavior, even when unintentional, hurts female political candidates but helps male candidates. Seat reservations for female elected officials make communities more likely to associate women with leadership and vote for women in the future.”

Modeling female leadership is another. “Repeated exposure to female elected officials improves perceptions of female leaders and leads to future electoral gains for women,” Harvard Kennedy School said in the report. “Female role models in leadership positions help adolescent girls to aspire to leadership.”

We have already produced empowered and deserving women.

Let them run a country.


Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire portraits by JL JAVIER


Produced by GABY GLORIA