Gender equality is a basic pillar in modern-day feminist conversations. It’s been a repetitive online slogan since the Tumblr generation as well as a go-to DEI buzzword for aspiring progressive organizations. But one term that’s just as essential yet rarely heard enough is equity. Instead of only ensuring that individuals have the exact same access to opportunities, equity forces us to grapple with our privilege and examine how we can redistribute what we have to serve the needs of others. It’s inherently uncomfortable because it demands action.
Given how loaded the term is, how might we work towards breaking it down into practical steps? How might we embrace it in a world defined by our differences? These are questions CNN Philippines’ annual Women’s Summit — aptly entitled #EmbraceEquity — sought to address. Held last March 25, this series of talks highlighted issues women continue to face as well as the measures that must be taken so everyone can occupy their rightful space.
The first panel stressed the importance of expanding the existing conversation to include all women — a demand that goes against what Filipinos have been conditioned to believe. During ancestral times, trans women were once revered and even expected to take on leadership roles in society. “[But] when the Spaniards came to colonize the Philippines, they were the ones who intensified inequality because they had brought with them the unequal gender ideology from Spain,” shared Dr. Nathalie Verceles, associate professor from the University of the Philippines Diliman. “It had become a social norm because those in power dictated adherence until it became naturalized and even institutionalized within the family and the community.”
This exclusion persists to this day, as seen in both microaggressions and intentional acts of gender-based violence. Trans women and LGBTQIA+ rights advocates Mela Habijan and Thysz Estrada bravely shared the subtle ways they are targeted throughout their daily lives. “Something people tend to get away with is the concept of having a gaydar,” Estrada said, eliciting gasps from the audience. This act of predicting others’ sexual orientations “only [works] with preconceived notions and stereotypes of what being queer can be.”
Another example brought up was deadnaming, or referring to a trans or nonbinary person by their name from before they transitioned. “If I call you by your [lived] name, I say that you exist. You exist with me and we belong in this space,” Habijan explained. Though the topic may be sensitive to discuss with others, Habijan believes that “we should educate ourselves on how unfair it is to box people and judge them. That’s the way forward.”
By unlearning these harmful social norms, we allow all women to have a seat at the table and participate in spaces where they can make distinct contributions. In the second panel, women leaders both in the public and private sector spoke of the edge they possess over the male counterparts. For Department of Health (DOH) Officer-in-Charge Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire, it was her “communication and credibility” that made her a force to be reckoned with at the height of the pandemic, even without a title. “I am loyal to my superiors, whoever they may be, but in terms of doing my service, I will always be here to put the people first and not my bosses. I will always look at and see what the people need.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Donya Tesoro of San Manuel, Tarlac thinks it’s her genuine heart for service and listening ear. “It’s a plus to be a woman in politics, actually, because you know how to delegate tasks. That’s why I wanted to work with people who are smarter than me,” she said. “Advantage ko noong pandemic was that I hired based on background rather than loyalty because I wanted to work with people who are smart and dedicated.”
Cathy Torres of UN Women Philippines boasts of the woman’s ability to build bridges in a world that is set on building borders. Her response alludes to her organization’s BRIDGE program, which guides returning female migrant workers through the recruitment to reintegration process. “Right now, when we speak of women in Philippine society, we have those in the C-suite as well as those struggling at the very bottom of the pyramid. We try to focus on those in the margins.”
Finally, reigning Binibining Pilipinas International Nicole Borromeo thinks it’s the Filipina’s renewed form of empowerment. Beauty pageants formerly had a reputation for being superficial, but now, “we get to meet people who have opinions on issues and make the most of the platforms given to them.”
Aside from forming better connections with their constituents, these women in positions of power can wield their influence to encourage more girls to participate in the economy. The third panel of the day stressed the need for representation and education in traditionally male-dominated fields: something that BDO Unibank is proud to have. Aside from having a workforce composed of 75% women, “we support women as consumers and as entrepreneurs through the products and services offered by the bank,” said Marla Garin-Alvarez, the bank’s vice president for sustainability. “Our focus right now is funding agencies and helping women recover after the pandemic, because that was the most affected sector.”
Cherrie Atilano of AGREA attested to this, as one of the few female movers in the agribusiness sector. “If we take a look at the agricultural sector, who is the first to plant, the first to grow, the first to harvest, but the last to eat? It’s our mothers,” she said. Atilano claims that systemic forces are to blame for this disparity: examples of which include laws that entrust shared property to the man of the house, as well as existing equipment that isn’t designed with women in mind.
Such struggles are further compounded for queer women, who continue to face barriers to opportunities both in and out of the workplace. “Women are breaking glass ceilings, doing everything despite the odds stacked against them. But being queer and as someone who works in a queer rights advocacy, who we are is somehow still a barrier,” said Tina Boado, co-founder of Queer Safe Spaces. This is why their youth-led nonprofit partners with organizations to provide grants and loans to queer-led SMEs and give them access to the credit, training, and resources they need.
When women are provided with the ingredients to success, it produces a positive ripple effect, as they’re hardwired to give back to the community in any way they can. The last panel featured accomplished women in the arts who have done just that, including Zarah Juan, the creative director of her eponymous brand.
Without the safety net of a prestigious surname or a formal education, she learned to hustle early in her career. “I remember one time nung nadiscover ko na mas mataas yung mga presyo ko from Divisoria kasi babae ako. The suppliers kasi are seven Chinese men. I wanted to meet up with them. Little did I know that it was a drinking session, and I used it to strategize.” After a night of heavy drinking, she was the only one who showed up to the bidding the next day, with the lowest price and best design.
Award-winning actress, screenwriter, and director Bela Padilla also recounted her own journey over the past 16 years she’s been in the showbiz industry. Despite facing one rejection after another for being “too white or not that pretty,” she has learned to forge a path of her own by opening her own doors. “In the Philippines, we’re not used to women who are multihyphenates because we’re often told that we only fit in one box. But women are multihyphenates without asking for it: we’re literally Michelle Yeoh all the time,” she said.
On the other hand, woodcarver Charming Baldemor decided to pursue a mentorship during the pandemic to pass her skills to the artisans of Paete. “Our approach was not the academic type of teaching but more of an intimate mentorship. We had to teach [the apprentices] that everything we do has to be done in quality and to do that, we had to dig deeper, get to know each other to bring out the best in them.”
Prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde does the same as the current head of her own ballet school. “I was able to use my training over the years to tell a story and now, I’m able to teach ballet to my students and that has given me a new calling and a new life,” she said. Today, she teaches her students not only the basics of the discipline but also the proper emotions needed to succeed. “As women, I think we can harness our emotions to make ourselves super committed and stubborn and bull-headed and hardworking. You always have to keep your heart in what you’re doing.”
Although the Philippines has taken considerable strides towards progress, there is still a lot of work to be done before we are truly equitable. The stories of the speakers may have brought women’s distinct struggles to the fore, but there remains no guarantee that we will arrive at appropriate multi-sectoral solutions any time soon. But as Estrada poignantly highlighted during her last statement, we can choose to take comfort in the fact that the seeds we plant today will become trees that will serve as shade for the next generation.