Female execs dominate in Philippines

Could the women of one poor South East Asian country be an augur of things to come? We'd better hope so.

Published August 3, 2007 12:00AM (EDT)

Today's story about a report from the Department of Labor and Employment that women in the Philippines far outnumber men in executive positions should pique the interest of feminists around the world. Actually, the predominance of women in senior positions in the workplace in the Philippines isn't new -- the female edge was first recorded in 2002 in a similar report that showed there were 1.86 million women in supervisory and executive positions compared to 1.4 million men. But over the next four years, the margin has widened -- with 2.257 million women executives compared to only 1.629 million men.

Seen from a global perspective, Filipinas are kicking some serious executive booty. According to one business survey of 32 countries, Filipinas' global standing is substantially higher both in the number of executives total and the number of employers who have women in senior management. According to the Grant Thornton International survey, 97 percent of all Filipino businesses have women executives and 50 percent have female senior executives. (That's lower than the government numbers, but perhaps it defined senior executives differently.)

If you think development and women's empowerment go hand in hand, it's worth noting that the country with the lowest percentage of businesses with women executives was Japan at 25 percent along with four European nations: the Netherlands (27 percent), Luxembourg (37 percent), Germany (41 percent) and Italy (42 percent). The other countries topping the list with the highest percentage of women in managerial positions -- Brazil (42 percent) and Thailand (39 percent) -- also defy stereotypes.

But is the Philippines really a sanctuary of equality where women can shoot for the sky without smashing their heads on glass ceilings? That would be hard to argue. Catholic traditions keep families big, abortion illegal and maintain antipathy toward contraception. The country's bassackward attitude toward divorce also can't help. Since the early 1990s divorce has been unobtainable. Following the strictures of Roman Catholic law, couples may "separate" or, under rare circumstances, annul their marriages, but they can't remarry. Just this week a law was changed that reduced the number of days a widow must wait to remarry after the death of her husband from 300 to 40.

So, how do the Filipinas manage to break into the boardroom while being saddled down with 3.6 children and an expectation that they have Adobo on the table every night? One answer is the sheer number of woman wielding diplomas: Since the early '90s women have outnumbered men in colleges and graduate schools -- a trend seen in the U.S. as well -- but it took a decade for the education factor to make an impression on the workplace. According to Philippines: A Country Study, while women comprised 64 percent of graduate students in 1990, they held only about 15 percent of executive positions. Now, according to the Department of Labor's report, one in three women in the workplace have some college education, as compared to one in five men.

Another possible, less appealing reason for the high level of executive women in the Philippines hinges on extreme class inequities. Since the country has such a large population of very poor people, even the middle class can afford servants, cooks and nannies. In other words, some Filipinas have what every executive needs: a wife.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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