The Unsung Success of Womenomics in Taiwan

The Unsung Success of Womenomics in Taiwan

The Unsung Success of Womenomics in Taiwan

President Tsai Ing-wen committed to raising the female labor force participation rate in Taiwan, among other gender parity initiatives, at the International Council of Women’s Executive Committee meeting held in Taipei for the first time on November 14. The term “womenomics”—first coined by Goldman Sachs strategist Kathy Matsui in 1999—was revitalized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, and is exclusively applied to Japan. Broadly speaking, womenomics is a holistic approach to increasing female participation in the workforce and encompasses policy reforms at the governmental, private, and social levels concerning issues such as equal wages, parental leave, promotions, and child care support, among others. While Japan’s use of these policies is well known, Taiwan has been implementing its own womenomic policies for the past two decades, with great success.

In the 2014 Gender Inequality Index (GII), Taiwan was ranked 5th after Denmark, meaning it had the 5th lowest rate of inequality out of 155 countries; South Korea was 24, Japan was 27, and the United States was 56th. Taiwan ranked 43rd place in the 2015 Gender Gap Index (GGI), calculated by the World Economic Forum (WEF);  the United States ranked 28th, China was 91, and Japan was 101 out of 145 countries.  It should be noted that Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations or the WEF, so the rankings were calculated by Taiwan’s government. That being said, the fact that Taiwan is committed to independently tracking and measuring its progress towards gender parity is admirable.

Taiwan’s female labor force participation rose from 45.3 percent in 1995 to 50.7 percent in 2015. In 2015, female to male estimated income levels show that Taiwanese women earned 83 percent of what their male colleagues earned, meaning that the wage gap was 17 percent, much lower than the United States and Japan. Japanese women earned 66 percent of their male counterparts’ wages for equal work, while in the United States women earned 65 percent. In 2015, average monthly salaries for women in Taiwan grew by 2.9 percent, a faster rate than their male counterparts at 2.3 percent.

The relatively small income gap between men and women in Taiwan may be partially attributed to the relative low level of income disparity overall in Taiwan and the fact that Taiwan’s economy predominantly features small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that are more accommodating than the large chaebols and zaibatsu of South Korea and Japan, respectively. Nearly 98 percent of Taiwan’s businesses were SMEs in 2014, a huge proportion, and 491,000 women were owners. However, the gender wage gap in Taiwan seems to be due to actual discrimination, a conclusion drawn from the fact that women and men in Taiwan are more equally qualified in terms of education and experience than in other countries.[1]

According to the Gender Equality in Employment Act (性別工作平等法), Taiwanese mothers are granted up to  eight weeks of maternity leave and if they have been employed for six months or more, they will receive full pay. In addition, the law has provisions for employers of more than 100 people to provide nursing rooms and childcare facilities, or help with off-site care. Japan guarantees about 14 weeks of maternity leave at a rate of about 60 percent pay.  In the United States, zero days of maternity leave are guaranteed by law.

President Tsai’s election in 2015 was a historic moment for Taiwan, as she is the country’s first female president. Even more striking is the fact that she did not inherit a political dynasty as many other female leaders have, such as Indira Ghandi, Maria Corazon Aquino, Park Gyen-hye, or Aung San Suu Kyi, to name a few. Perhaps President Tsai’s success is partly attributable to Taiwan’s policies that promote female political participation in the workforce and society.

Since 1946, Taiwan’s constitution guaranteed 10 percent representation for women in the legislative bodies at all levels of government. After 1999, the number of reserved seats in the Legislative Yuan (LY) for women increased to 25 percent, and quotas will be phased out after 50 percent representation is achieved.[2] Due to the quota system, female representation in Taiwan’s legislature rose from 12 percent in 1995 to 38 percent in 2016. Women in Taiwan represent 34 percent of legislators, senior officials, and managers compared to men. Japan has no quota system for female representation in parliament, and the percent of women in the Diet was 9.5 in 2016. The US also has no quota system in place for gender parity in Congress, and women held 19 percent of seats in 2016.

Why has Taiwan become so successful in promoting gender parity? Following the democratization movement in Taiwan in the late 1980s, many feminist groups sprang into action and fought for reforms such as the larger quotas in the LY, which led to more egalitarian attitudes toward gender today. Taiwan’s history of a vibrant civil society allowed feminists groups to form and become more involved in politics, unlike Japan which suffers from a relatively underdeveloped civil society.

Despite Taiwan’s successes thus far, there is more work still to be done. The level of female labor force participation can grow in general, especially in traditionally male-dominated sectors such as science and technology. Taiwan should also focus on cultivating female talent to become leaders at the senior level—a look at President Tsai’s Cabinet  with only four women out of 40 positions confirms that the glass ceiling still exists.  Enforcement mechanisms for gender quotas and maternity leave laws should be strengthened, and Taiwan should work on punishing gender discrimination in wages. Taiwan passed the Gender Equality in Employment Act in 2002 and the Gender Equality in Education Act  (性別平等教育法) in 2004, but there is no blanket gender equality law. Although the Department of Gender Equity (行政院性別平等會) was finalized in 2012, it narrowly interprets “gender” to focus solely on women. Members of the LGBTQ community, especially transgender people, lack protection under Taiwan’s current framework.  

Taiwan is also committed to empowering women abroad. On November 18 at the Asia Pacific Economies Cooperation (APEC) Leader’s Summit, the US and Taiwan announced a joint initiative, “APEC Women and the Economy Sub-Fund”. Taiwan is already active in APEC’s Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy (PPWE) to build women’s economic empowerment in APEC economies. In 2007, Taiwan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and in 2011 formally adopted a law to implement the UN treaty despite not being a member of the UN.

It was inspiring to hear President Tsai bring the issue of gender to the forefront of Taiwan’s national consciousness, but even more inspiring is how Taiwan’s government has already prioritized gender parity for decades. Prime Minister Abe revitalized the term “womenomics” out of necessity—Japan is facing a major crisis and needs to increase its labor force. Taiwan, on the other hand, has implemented policies to promote gender parity as a priority in its own right; its economic problems stem from the need to reform its industries and reduce its reliance on China as a trading partner, not because women have been shut-out of the economy for decades. Without any outside pressure, Taiwan promotes women in the workforce and in its government, and for that its people should be proud, and its government upheld as a global role model in striving for gender parity.

The main point: Although “womenomics” is a term that has been exclusively applied to Japan, Taiwan has quietly implemented progressive policies to promote female participation in both the workforce and the government, and enjoys some of the highest rates of female education, income, and political representation in East Asia as well as the world.

[1] Berik, Günseli. “Growth with gender inequality: Another look at East Asian development.” In Social Justice and Gender Equality: Rethinking Development Strategies and Macroeconomic Policies, ed. Günseli Berik, Yana van der Meulen Rodgers and Ann Zammit (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 22.
[2] See Doris Chang, presentation given at  “What Women Want, What Women Need: Challenges and Opportunities for Female Leaders and Executives in East Asia (panel discussion, Woodrow Wilson Center, Asia Program, Washington, D.C., December 15, 2015). Recording available: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/what-women-want-what-women-need-challenges-and-opportunities-for-female-leaders-and-executives