Women still struggling for recognition
Germany, Thailand, South Korea and the International Monetary Fund all have female leaders That could convince some that the gender gap is narrowing, but this is far from reality.The world's population is 7 billion, and half is female. But globally, only a small percentage of women hold managerial positions. Thailand does not buck the trend in this regard; despite its higher ratio of females, only 15 per cent of its 500 MPs are women.
And only a few are present in boardrooms. Throughout my career, I've interviewed uncountable numbers of male company presidents, but only a few female ones. Through its 70-year history, the Bank of Thailand has had only one female governor, Tarisa Watanagase. Marking its centennial anniversary this year, Siam Cement Group has never had a female chief. Notably, there are no women on the 10-member board of directors.
At the World Economic Forum 2013 in Davos, it was reported that only 15 per cent of the delegates were women. Among them was Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF and former chairman of legal firm Baker & McKenzie.
"Gender inclusion is critically important, and, frankly, too often neglected by policy-makers. In today's world, it is no longer acceptable to block women from achieving their potential," stressed the IMF chief at the Women in Economic Decision-Making session.
The figures show that despite apparent changes around the world, women have to work harder than men to climb the social and economic ladders. One example emerged last weekend, when a Japanese pop star from the band AKB48 showed up in a video with a shaven head and in tears. Singer Minami Minegishi performed the traditional form of penance in Japan, just to maintain her status in the band, after she was snapped leaving her boyfriend's apartment. Yes, having a boyfriend violates the strict band rules that all members must stay single.
In the tape, posted on the band's website, Minami weeps as she says: "I don’t believe just doing this means I can be forgiven for what I did, but the first thing I thought was that I don't want to quit AKB48. If it is possible, I wish from the bottom of my heart to stay in the band. Everything I did is entirely my fault. I am so sorry."
It is beyond imagination that this rule still exists and there are people out there obeying it just to maintain their social status. When male singers are free to mingle with female fans, who would believe that there are such rules for female singers?
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has to demonstrate toughness. Rarely showing up at social functions before coming to power, she became a public figure overnight. Now, everything she does - stumbling with words or her choice of clothes - becomes a topic of daily conversation.
Living in a man's world is tough, and the rise of women leaders does not mean a particular boost for women's potential in certain societies. Yingluck has to proceed with her brother's populist legacy, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye is doing the same thing. It is believed that her election victory was due largely to her promises to provide free childcare for under-fives, and to subsidise social security contributions and university tuition feess for the poor. Yingluck has initiated the women's development fund - a vehicle to provide them with career credits - but the project remains far from successful.
The rise of women brings about some social changes. At the national level, nobody cared about male former prime ministers' dress sense, but now all eyes are on Yingluck's. At my office, one of my colleagues made a joke when lots of bouquets arrived to congratulate me on promotion.
It is the whole world that needs to prepare for changes.
While Lagarde believes that women have the potential to grow, as they control 70 per cent of global consumer spending, women still have to shoulder more of a burden when it comes to family matters. Certainly, this holds many women back. How many men these days would quit their jobs if their wives are promoted and relocated to a place far from home? One woman complained that men are praised when they rush home to sit by the bed of their sick kids, but women are not, and are traditionally required to do so as part of their family responsibility.
What if women revolt? There are some signs that they will.
Globally, urban women tend to stay single, or, if married, tend to have fewer children. In Singapore, the government shows its gratitude to women by allowing them to leave the office on Wednesday afternoons to be with their families. But even with that and free tuition for their kids, more Singaporean women prefer to stay single.
"Today's women can no longer tolerate men's nonsense," said a female diplomat. "More educated, they can support themselves financially. At the top of their mind is to buy things they want and travel."
And now, this is resulting in a lower birth rate. Singapore now has a headache over this problem, as the number of migrant workers seems to grow faster than the number of its own citizens.
This will also be the case in Thailand, as more women dare to be different. The gender gap still be wide now, but like technological advancements, major changes could emerge in the foreseeable future when more women realise their potential.