Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sexism and the Taiwanese Workplace

“’This is how it is’, she said” I remember a friend telling me of her own conversation with a mutual friend. I remember that we both grimaced and shook our heads.

“How can that be ‘how it is’?”

“Apparently, it just is and she has to deal with it.”

The mutual friend had revealed that her job at a mid-sized local company in Taoyuan County paid her approximately 20% less than her male counterparts earned.

“This is how it is – I can’t do anything about it. It is what they do.”

I remember my stomach churning in disgust that someone I know could be on the brute end of such discrimination, and feel so powerless against it.

I know she’s not the only one – there is still a great deal of salary disparity in Taiwan for women working in smaller companies and in local companies. Often the employers make no attempt at hiding it. These same companies will openly ask about childbearing prospects in interviews (and are less likely to hire a woman who is considering having a baby in the foreseeable future) and it is not unheard of to see employment ads targeted at women that list desired physical attributes (although I am assured that this is really quite rare now – it’s far more of a problem in Korea).

It’s a rights issue that ranks right up there with the necessity of quashing employers’ sexist attitudes toward taking all of the maternity leave a new mother is entitled to – “encouraging” female employees not to take it at the risk of a downgraded performance review or fewer opportunities for advancement, or even implying that she won’t have a job to come back to.
Here’s where I admit that this hasn’t been my experience, either personally or observationally in the offices where I work. As one of the longest-standing employees where I work, I do bring home what my seniority merits (although that doesn’t stop me from asking for raises). I do get respect at work – I have great freedom with materials, nobody looks over my shoulder, I have a lot of leeway when it comes to meetings and paperwork, I get many of the best clients and the office has a general “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.

Take a recent seminar I co-taught with two others for example. Before the class began, students (generally older, male and in suits) came in. It wasn’t said but I could sense that they expected that the only foreign man in the room – a co-teacher – was the lead trainer or at least had the most seniority. There was no lead trainer, in fact, but it’s undeniable that I’m the one with seniority and the confidence to make that clear without having to say so directly. I walked around, socialized, attempted to read the students’ Chinese names (that never fails to impress). This approach to, well, approachability, I find, cements my place as the person of authority in any room.

When we began and introductions were made, my company’s director passed the microphone directly to me, despite the fact that the male teacher was standing closer to him. I took this for the sign of respect and recognition that it was, in a country that values gestures and the stature they imply in the workplace. Younger and female, but I’m the one with seniority. It didn’t bother me that the first impressions of the students had to be silently but forcibly changed. The thing of import was that they were changed, and that my company had subtly backed me up.
It saddens me that my friend doesn’t have access to the same respect.

I tend to work in offices that are larger and, generally, international (although this is not always true). The women I have worked with and built a close enough relationship with that we can discuss such things have overwhelmingly said that they face and fear no such discrimination – although, yes, I have considered the possibility that despite the seeming trust between us, that some of them are fudging their truths out of a desire not to broadcast how they are treated at work.

This is a big part of why hearing about a mutual friend’s struggle for gender equality at work bothered me so much – this isn’t Korea, China or Japan where this sort of thing is so common that it’s large-scale depressing (so depressing that I don’t think I can ever live and work in any of those countries. Even if I were to do well, knowing that I was earning money in a system in which so many women were being stepped on is not something I could stomach). It doesn’t have to be this way. Taiwan can do and has done better, and the Taiwanese professional world owes her more than this – both literally and metaphorically.

The “good” news for foreign women coming to work in Taiwan is that most of them will land in jobs – primarily in English teaching – where gender discrimination, if it is an issue at all, is actually in their favor; as teachers, women seem to be preferred far more than men for many such jobs. (Note the quotes around the word “good” – it’s never a truly good thing where discrimination exists). Salaries do not tend to be disparate between men and women if you’re teaching kids in a cram school.

I happen to work in a related but different field where men seem to be more common than women and are often seen as more knowledgeable, but have also reaped a bit of this advantage: I have found that bringing a different sort of female voice to the Asian corporate world – even if I am in the role of trainer, not employee – has made a difference, albeit a small one.
Yes, at the risk of bragging, I do think that the voice I bring to these gatherings is different, if only because I’m a foreign female and there aren’t that many of us in Asia, and there are even fewer of us who aren’t students or teachers to over-schooled children. My personality – think bright colors, crazy jokes (even in a business setting, although I do keep it work-appropriate), no makeup, a love of presenting and public speaking and Dan Pink-style expressive body language – is also somewhat different from what you might call the average Taiwanese woman (although I can name several notable exceptions even among women I’ve personally met).

But I digress.

There are still gender discrimination and sexism issues in the workplace that need to be addressed in Taiwan. A few that I have encountered:

- I mentioned above that I have no qualms about asking for raises. Getting them, however, is a different story. I won’t reveal my success rate but you can assume it’s about average. Part of me wonders if this is a gender issue – there have been better-paid men on staff in the past, but not now – and part of me wonders if it is economic. I certainly wouldn’t be the only person of either gender who earns less than former counterparts once did because of this tiny little thing called the 2008 economic crisis. Given the circumstances there is no way to be sure.

- There is still this prevalent belief in Taiwan that appropriate business semi-formal attire (not business formal but not Friday casual) for women still involves pantyhose, high heels, makeup, no open-toed shoes and collared shirts with sleeves. Some of this is still true – I avoid sleeveless tops, for example – but so much of it is out of date and puts too much pressure on women to dress for work – far more than men face. Back home makeup, collared shirts and stockings are business formal additions and not necessary for a regular day at the office unless you’re in a high-visibility role. Flat pumps, non-collared necklines and modest open-toe shoes are now perfectly acceptable. It’s time Taiwan caught up to a more contemporary dress code. And those ridiculous uniforms that so many companies require have simply got to go. They wouldn’t bother me so much if they weren’t a gender issue: they are foisted on female employees far more often than male ones. It is fairly common in the same company for women to have to wear uniforms whereas men have more freedom to wear regular business-appropriate attire. I would love to see a work culture in which women didn’t feel as though they needed to suffer in heels and stockings and ruin their skin with makeup unless they wanted to. This is where it’s going in the USA, and it should be going the same way in Taiwan.

- A working culture in which women who want to get to the top have to sacrifice family time. I’d love to see a society in which “how do you raise a family and have a high-powered career” was a question asked of, and by, men and women equally. I’d love even more to live in a society that could provide a suitable answer. Why are Taiwan’s most successful women by and large single (and yes, most of my most successful female students are disproportionally single)? The answer is right here.

- This has worked to my advantage, but it is something that I file under “gender inequality”: classes in which the students or even HR specifically request a female teacher. I have never heard of a case in which a male teacher was requested in my field, although I suspect that might be because it is generally assumed that unless requested otherwise, they will be male – which is not that wrong, as there aren’t that many women in this field. More often than not it is a class of all male students, and generally speaking those students tend to work in technical fields. Other than the obvious “it’s nice to be around a woman after working all day with men”, I do wonder if they expect a different attitude from me than they might get from a male trainer. While I do have a different attitude simply because I’m me, I also feel they are surprised by how not typically feminine I am, at least not by Asian standards.

- While I was not directly asked, it was implied at work that they were afraid I might quit after getting married. I consider it a sign of progress that nobody asked outright, but a sign of room for improvement that they so clearly wondered. The sigh of relief was palpable when I told them, without being asked, that of course I’d be signing another contract.

- There is some old proverb that goes along the lines of “A man’s mind is like an ocean and a woman’s is like a river – when a man and a woman marry, the river flows into the ocean and the ocean can decide what to do with the water.” I have no idea of this is Chinese, Buddhist or just plain old Bullshit, but suffice it to say that my now-husband was actually given this advice at work not long before our wedding. For serious.

- And, of course, there is the aforementioned pay disparity as well as fears of taking full maternity leave.

If we are going to eradicate sexism in the workplace it has to go beyond salary and extend to the full canon of women’s rights – reasonable expectations of dress, reasonable expectations of work-life balance for both men and women, ending the expectation that women will generally be Office Ladies with a few standout managers and directors, and reasonable working hours for everyone, so that nobody suffers when it comes time to have a family if that is what an employee is planning.

This last one is of critical importance, in my book, and honestly is closely related to why the birthrate (not to mention marriage rate) is so low. When expected working hours are ridiculous to the point of being both untenable and unhealthy, who suffers when it’s time to have a family? The woman – either in her time, sleep patterns, career progression or family life. We can’t just institute a “Mommy Track” – while not called that, such a thing does in fact exist in Taiwan already – and expect that mandating family and maternity flexibility for women will fix the problem. It will only cast women as poor investments compared to men in the eyes of companies, and will only hold women back while men, still expected to work the full load, race ahead. Instead, we need to decrease working hours for both genders and encourage more emphasis on work-life balance – regardless of whether one has children or is even married – so that having the time to date and later, if desired, integrating family life will be tenable for both genders, and ease some of the pressure that the current system unfairly unloads on women.

At the moment this discussion of work-life balance is taking place in Western countries and around the world - but it's only considered relevant to women and especially mothers. What I'd like to see is a long public dialogue about the importance, meaning and balance of work as relates to both genders. That's the point where we'll know we've eradicated much of the sexism in the workplace.


Pierre said...

I really like reading your blog, your articles are really interesting!

I am afraid to tell you the situation for women compared to men is still pretty bad in many countries in the World, including France for instance. I don't know if you can read French, but here is a terrible article about how women are treated when pregnant and looking for a job:

The first sentence says it all, it is a reply a pregnant woman got after applying for a job: "Your application cannot be approved because of the happy event happening to you".

As a French (man), I am often furious when I see my Taiwanese friends (male or female) unable to dare talking with their boss about their shitty working situation and all that. And yes, I get pretty often then "it's how it is, I can't do anything about it"... That's pretty sad.

And what you say about single women having better careers is very true... One of my (female) friend is working in a small cosmetics company, and almost all of her colleagues are single!

As "outsiders", what can we do about that?

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

As outsiders there's not much we can do except "be the change" (to paraphrase Gandhi). I do think that by being a woman who questions the system, commands respect and isn't afraid to ask for - no, demand - equal and fair treatment has some sort of impact, if only to be an example of how things can be different if enough women demand it. Of course the message is muted somewhat by my being foreign, and therefore "what she does doesn't apply to us" might be a common refrain...but I have seen it in action: women I know asking for raises or expecting better treatment as a result of seeing me (or any given woman with a similar attitude) expecting it, the occasional look of dawning understanding on the faces of male students when I make a comment about what women really have to deal with in the workplace - a student who has started traveling to "adventurous" countries she'd never before considered (India, Egypt) because I would tell stories and show pictures of my travels there (I promise that I do let my students do most of the talking though!).

There's also simply making your voice heard - timely editorials and well-written and consistently updated blogs are great for that.

Politically or within the system, no, there is not much we can do. I could be much more active in the USA on this front - here, I can demand equality in my own workplace (which I generally get anyway) so that future female employees benefit from a changed environment, but I can't do much to change things otherwise.

That's up to Taiwanese women themselves. Or women around the world, wherever they are.