May 18, 2017 10:00 am JST

William Klausner: Thailand must keep up its progress on gender equality

Country already has impressive rate of female CEOs, but more work is needed

Bangkok Bank staff explain the products on offer at a promotional event in Bangkok. Over 70% of the bank's new recruits last year were women. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Thailand has undergone a dramatic social, cultural, economic and political transformation during the past half century. In particular, educated Thai women have reconfigured traditional conceptions of their private and public roles -- to the point where Thailand now has one of the highest proportions of female executives in the world, according to surveys and research by consultants including Grant Thornton and Oliver Wyman.

Many have broken into the top levels of the civil service, such as Juree Wijitwatakarn, former director of the National Institute of Development Administration, or have risen to senior levels in the business world, such as Chadatip Chutrakul, CEO of Siam Piwat, one of Thailand's top retail and retail property developers, and Supaluck Umpujh, head of The Mall Group, Thailand's second-largest retail chain.

Much remains to be done, however, before Thai women can be said to have achieved true equality. That will require an open and far-reaching debate in Thai society and official willingness to tackle further reform, especially in government and religious circles.

EMERGING ROLES Five or more decades ago, a "good" woman in Thai culture -- as in most other Asian societies -- was chaste before marriage, then a devoted and dutiful wife and doting mother. In more recent decades, educated Thai women have begun to exercise a newly realized freedom to expand their roles. They have felt free to pursue professional careers and have come to a realization that they can protect and support themselves. Being more independent, they have felt less obligated to defer to authority figures within and outside the family.

Even in the traditional bastions of bureaucratic power, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the trend toward increasing participation by women is clear. The first Thai woman to be appointed to the civil service rank of governor took up her job only in 1993. By 2016 there had been 10, with more in the pipeline.

In 1985, only one woman in the Thai Foreign Ministry was eligible to be an ambassador. Today there are at least 12, and an increasing number of women in high-level positions are or will soon be eligible to join them. Far greater numbers of women than men are entering the ministry each year, and a woman now holds the most senior civil service position in the ministry, that of permanent secretary.

But the most striking example of the preponderance of women over men in the bureaucratic corridors of power can be found in the Thai Ministry of Commerce. There, women have greatly outnumbered men for some years, and have held the top posts of director-general and permanent secretary, making the top echelons of the ministry an almost exclusive preserve of the not-so-weaker sex.

The dramatic rise of women to the upper levels of Thai bureaucracy follows an explosion in the number of female university students in Bangkok. In 1994, only two of the 19 faculties at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University had more women than men. Today, that statistic has been reversed.

BEHIND THE NUMBERS Thailand's population of 68 million is 51% female, but this is not a sufficient imbalance to explain the advancement of women in recent years. Some have argued that women are progressing in the law, civil service and business sectors because more women than men enter the arts stream, as opposed to the science stream, at the secondary school level, facilitating entry to academic faculties from which graduates entering these professions are drawn. However, there is no barrier to men in either the science or arts streams attempting to compete for university places. The reality is that women are outperforming men academically in both secondary schools and university entrance examinations.

Social and political pressures have led to the enactment of laws safeguarding women's rights that were denied only a decade or more ago. For example, adultery by a husband is now a ground for his wife to seek a divorce; the rape of a wife by her husband is now a criminal act; sexual harassment is a criminal offense.

However, patriarchal attitudes have resulted in these new rights being largely unenforced by the authorities, and there is also a degree of reluctance among women to pursue such cases. If formal complaints of marital rape or domestic violence are made, the police will almost always press women to return to their families and resolve the issue through discussion. In the case of sexual harassment, women's rights are limited by the law, which applies only in the workplace.

WEAK SPOTS There are countervailing pressures. The number of nongovernmental organizations committed to furthering women's rights has steadily expanded, and they have become more vocal. Women in positions of leadership in the bureaucracy may be expected to join in, with support from the media and academia.

Little support for the further progress of women in Thai society can be expected from parliament, however. In 1990, women held only 3% of the seats in the Thai parliament. While their numbers have increased since then, especially during periods of elected government, the proportion of women holding seats has never risen higher than 20%. In the past three years, under military rule, there have been 13 women in a 250-seat appointed parliament.

There is also stark evidence of the persistence of male supremacy in the religious sphere. Under a 1928 law, women are prohibited from being ordained as female Theravada monks, or bhiksuni. Despite the numerous scandals and increased politicization of the Sangha Council of Elders, the governing body of Thai Buddhism, the patriarchal elders remain adamant that ordination and related privileges are the legal right and privilege of men only. Even those women who have been ordained as female monks in other countries are not recognized under Thai law.

Nevertheless, educated Thai women are contributing to the development of the nation in both the private and public sectors -- including those from rural areas, where growing numbers now aspire to be part of the capital's urban middle-class society, finding employment as bank workers, secretaries, nurses, hospital technicians and tour guides. But women who remain in their villages have also assumed expanded roles, becoming heads and senior officials of villages and communes.

This trend toward empowering educated women should be welcomed in both the public and private sectors. The military-backed government should enact and promote laws to further protect women's rights. Additional government and private support should be provided for the upgrade and expansion of higher education institutions in the rural areas.

Government agencies should be willing to accept input from NGOs on women's issues and collaborate with them in project implementation. Given the parlous state of the Sangha today, the government and Sangha authorities should provide a legal opportunity for Thai women to be ordained as female monks.

Younger people are clearly more amenable to positive cultural change, especially in regard to women's role in society. That means there should be no need for quotas or positive discrimination. But female equality is an important issue with wide ramifications. Now is the time for Thailand to focus on what has occurred over the last 50 years, examine the implications and determine what future action is needed.

William J. Klausner is an author and adjunct professor in the faculty of political science and a senior fellow in the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

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