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In politics, the glass ceiling is sturdier than it looks

Asia's female politicians dominated news in 2016, but there's still a long way to go

Colombia's ambassador to the U.N., Maria Emma Mejia, points to a chart showing General Assembly resolutions aimed at achieving 50-50 gender parity. (Photo by Ariana King)

NEW YORK Women dominated Asian political news in 2016. Taiwan elected its first female president, while Tokyo got its first female governor, to name just a few of the year's big stories. But such headline-grabbing milestones cannot mask the fact that across much of the region, equality remains a distant goal.

ONE STEP FORWARD Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan in January 2016. Her victory was doubly inspiring because the pro-independence Tsai made it to the highest office entirely on her own merits.

Nearly all female leaders in Asia, including Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, hail from political dynasties. They are equipped with the advantages of a good education and the political connections needed to climb the ladder. Tsai brought her own rope.

Despite their different backgrounds, Suu Kyi and Tsai have one thing in common: Both are important trailblazers who could encourage others to follow in their footsteps. Authorities on gender equality often point to the importance of having other women in top positions to serve as role models, living proof that a seemingly impossible feat can be accomplished.

In Tsai's case, relatively high levels of gender parity in the government were likely a factor in her ascent. Taiwan is far ahead of Japan and South Korea in female participation in the public sector. Many credit quotas, particularly in legislatures.

The percentage of women in legislative positions in Taiwan surpasses not only the Asian average, but also the global average, according to the BBC.

But as Taiwan speeds ahead, its neighbors are struggling to catch up.

WANING WOMENOMICS Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for women's empowerment in a United Nations speech back in 2013. But in the three years since, the results at home have disappointed. The country ranked No. 111 in the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, down 10 places from 2015. In political empowerment, the country stands in 103rd place.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike

A cornerstone of Abe's "womenomics" was a pledge to bring the ratio of women in leadership positions in all fields to 30% by 2020. With less than five years to go, Abe's cabinet has lowered its targets to 7% in the public sector and 15% in the private sector.

In the political sphere, rising stars made headlines in 2016, with the election of Yuriko Koike as Tokyo's first female governor, the appointment of Tomomi Inada to the powerful post of defense minister and the selection of Renho to lead the opposition Democratic Party.

Some gender equality advocates, however, question whether these high-profile politicians will have a significant impact in elevating Japanese women overall.

For Joyce Gelb, professor emerita of political science and women's studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Koike's rise could advance gender equality if she promotes substantive policies toward that end. "One thing is to have a symbolic appointment," Gelb said. "The real proof in the pudding is what kind of action occurs beyond the symbolic."

Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, suggested that high-profile appointments are positive developments but noted that the impact of simply appointing or electing a few women should not be overstated.

Gender parity is "a really complicated issue and not something you can solve just by throwing money at it, or coming up with quotas, or coming up with new child care policies," Cutler said.

"You really need a multipronged approach to really deal with this issue -- and you need patience," she said.

LESSONS FROM THE U.N. The United Nations also disappointed by failing to select a female secretary-general from a pool of talented candidates that included seven women, tapping Portugal's Antonio Guterres instead.

To his credit, Guterres appears to have gone to extra lengths to address gender equality. He has appointed three women to high-profile posts, including Nigerian Environment Minister Amina Mohammed as deputy secretary-general.

Colombia, a founding member of a U.N. group advocating a woman in the top job, has been a major player in spearheading gender equality within the organization. The Group of Friends for Gender Parity now has 72 member nations -- more than a third of the U.N.'s total membership.

The Group of Friends originally came to be "because it's 2016," joked Maria Emma Mejia, Colombia's permanent representative to the U.N. She channeled Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who offered a similar explanation for giving half of his cabinet posts to women.

"An organization like [the U.N.] cannot be viewed the same if at the top of the organization, in the leading position of roles and command ... you only see men -- because the world is not like that," Mejia explained.

The Group of Friends plans to work with Guterres and will submit a policy paper outlining what he can do in his first 100 days in office.

UNFORTUNATE PRECEDENT And not all news was good news when it came to women in Asian politics. Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president, faced a fierce public backlash over an influence-peddling scandal and was ultimately impeached.

Park made history back in 2012 with her election, yet South Korea still ranks poorly on gender equality indexes. Experts suggest that Park's victory had little to do with her being a woman. Her initial presidential campaign capitalized on her family legacy, not her gender, said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"I think in the Korean public mind, Park Geun-hye's campaign position and persona have been intertwined with the business of state for a long time," Snyder said, adding that part of her early campaign pitch was that she would dedicate herself not to family but to the state. That Park's parents were assassinated when she was young could have firmed up her resolve.

Though Park's gender did not appear to be a primary factor in her downfall, either, Snyder said it did her no favors.

Park is not unique in a South Korea long marred by corruption scandals. But as its first female president, she does not set the best precedent for women aspiring to the top job. There remains a chance that "people who do not want women to advance in Korea will turn to this to show that women aren't ready for office," Cutler warned.

In any case, at least for now, no female candidates seem to be lining up to replace Park.

LEGACY LEADER In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi's rise to the top was hailed as a democratic triumph. But the former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has come under strong international criticism for her handling of violence against the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority group.

Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, assesses Suu Kyi's performance as a mixed bag. She is struggling to establish control over the military and does not yet seem to have a coherent long-term economic program, he said.

On women's issues, Suu Kyi has stressed the need for increased female political participation, and her initial election was accompanied by an unprecedented rise in the number of women in the parliament. But she is occupied with the peace process, foreign relations and the economy, with women's rights apparently further down on her agenda.

"I'm not sure it's fair to say she's not addressing these issues; she's struggling to keep the country from imploding," Kurlantzick said of Suu Kyi's scant attention to gender equality. Tackling abuses by the military and the war is itself addressing issues affecting women, he added.

Myanmar is making strides. The percentage of women in the parliament has risen from 5.6% in 2014 to 9.9% in 2016.

But as shown by Japan's dismal track record, lip service to gender equality issues from leaders and policymakers does not always translate to actual change.

Like Taiwan, South Korea also has quotas for women's participation, but they are not enforced with the same vigor. Statistics for government posts roughly match those in Japan, which lacks quotas.

In the U.S., meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's failure to shatter the country's ultimate glass ceiling dampened the spirits of many. That she received nearly 3 million more votes, overall, than President-elect Donald Trump has compounded the disappointment -- the goal seemed so tantalizingly within reach.

So 2016 has not been the most inspiring year for the female half of the world's population. Then again, the pursuit of equality has always required perseverance.

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