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Decades after having Asia’s first female president in Cory Aquino, why are Filipina politicians still far outnumbered?

By AYIE LICSI Published Mar 29, 2022 8:13 pm

Corazon Aquino’s assumption of the presidency in 1986 marked not just a milestone in Philippine politics but also in the empowerment of the Filipino woman. But decades after the Philippines, and Asia, had its first female president, women still have far less seats in the high table of Philippine politics.

In a paper from the 1992 monograph “Women shaping democratic change” by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, it was noted that Aquino’s rise to the highest office in the land further perpetuated “the false consciousness that women command respect and enjoy considerable status in society.”

“It was as though the Aquino presidency marked the zenith of women's empowerment in the Philippines,” Christina K. Valte wrote in the paper "The Philippine Women's Movement: In Search of a Feminist Identity."

This campaign for women empowerment in politics first gained recognition when women were given the right to vote and run in the elections. That was in 1937, or three decades after the country’s fledgling republic held its first elections in 1907 during the first Philippine assembly.

Deep-seated gender bias often lead to stereotypical characterizations of a 'decisive male boss' and a 'bossy female boss.'

Since Filipino women were given the right to suffrage, there have been two female presidents, two female vice presidents, and a handful of female senators thus far.

In 1998, 14% of the candidates in national and local elections were female, while two decades later, in 2019, this number grew marginally at 20%. 

Looking at elected candidates, only 16% of them were female in 1998 and 23% in 2019. In 2019, less than half of the 8,755 female candidates were elected to office.

Double standards and gender norms

According to University of the Philippines (UP) Associate Professor for Political Science Dr. Jean Encinas-Franco, there are a number of obstacles that prevent women from taking part in politics, including traditional norms.

Characteristics of communal leadership such as being collaborative and nurturing, are devalued and are more associated with women.

"There are cultural, institutional, and economic factors as to why women are still not normalized in the realm of formal politics. Yung political would be our electoral system, prevalence of money politics, vote-buying, electoral violence—these discourage women from entering," she told PhilSTAR L!fe.

Vice President Leni Robredo, the lone female presidential candidate in the 2022 national elections.

Meanwhile, the institutional challenges come in gender ideology and how society views women. The 2020 World Values Survey found that more than half of Filipinos believe that men make better political leaders than women. Traits associated with masculinity are associated with characteristics for effective leadership, according to UP Center for Women's and Gender Studies Deputy Director for Research and Publication Dr. Marby Villaceran.

"Traits such as aggression, dominance, decisiveness, initiative, independence, which are more culturally associated with men, are seen as necessary traits for an effective leader," she said.

"[Meanwhile,] characteristics of communal leadership such as being collaborative and nurturing, are devalued and are more associated with women."

These positive traits of decisivenes and leadership traditionally associated with men conversely take on a negative sheen when assumed by a woman. These deep-seated gender bias often lead to stereotypical characterizations of a "decisive male boss" and a "bossy female boss." This double standard in the realm of business was examined in a 2016 paper by Stanford researchers, where the office backlash women receive for displaying leadership skills were acounted for.

Encinas-Franco said traditional gender norms likewise influence how some voters think.

"We may like some women political leaders but we like those who mimic how men act in politics more," she said. "Hindi normal sa atin makakita ng babaeng [leader] na may quiet strength at may empathy because to us, these are feminized traits so they are ‘weaker’ qualities."

In January 2021, President Rodrigo Duterte himself said the presidency is "not a woman's job," adding that men and women's emotional setup is different.

These stereotypes, however, devalue women's accomplishments and work.

When women are in politics, they tend to legislate and create policies that are good for social welfare. They tend to propose budgets that would increase budgets for basic social services.

An unleveled playing field

Villaceran explained how women in politics in the Philippines are sometimes seen as "benchwarmers" or "substitutes" for male family members or spouses who are cooling down from serving full-term in office. These women are also typically elected through their association with male politicians.

Cory Aquino, the first female president in the Philippines and in Asia.

"When women are elected, stereotypical gendered expectations negate the recognition of women’s accomplishments through the devaluing of their work and/or attribution of their success to something other than their own skill and ability (not due to merit but influence, attractiveness, etc)," said Villaceran.

Encinas-Franco also noted how women candidates are asked gendered questions like how they balance work and family, questions men in office would never get asked. "Parang taken for granted yung nagtratrabaho sila."

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Philippines' first female vice president and second female president.

Female candidates are often an easier target for fake news.

"What you will just do is tap into latent misogynist tendencies of the citizens. Like for instance, yung double standard, citizens would tend to set aside male politicians who have paramours or mistresses diba? But it’s going to be different when you invent fake news for a female politician," Encinas-Franco said.

"Madaling kilitiin yung stigma sa babae kasi nga double standard."

In 2022, Vice President Leni Robredo was a victim of disinformation spreading about how she married a New People's Army member when she was 15 years old. Robredo dismissed the claim and said she does not let such distractions affect her work.

Women and governance

In the upcoming 2022 national elections, only two women are vying for the country's top posts: Vice President Leni Robredo for the presidency and Davao City Mayor Sara Durterte-Carpio for the vice presidency. Meanwhile, out of the 64 senatorial bets, there are 12 female hopefuls.

With women still outnumbered, Encinas-Franco said continuing to elect competent women leaders in office should snowball in time to better numbers.

"It's just right that because women represent 50% or sometimes more than half of the population, they should be represented in the halls of power," she continued.

Based on the Philippine Statistic Authority's 2022 fact sheet on women and men, population projections of women are at 55.3 million while men are at 56.3 million.

"There’s research indicating that when women are in politics, they tend to legislate and create policies that are good for social welfare. They tend to propose budgets that would increase budgets for basic social services. That’s the reason why there should be more women in politics," Encinas-Franco added.

Villaceran added that there needs to be a transformation in our ideologies.

"What is needed is a gender-transformative leadership that addresses the roots of the problem—harmful gender ideologies, sexism, and misogyny and how they intersect with other identities subject to oppression based on socio-economic class, SOGIE, disability, etc.," she said.

Valte's paper, published in the early '90s, is already dated, but its assumptions and invocations somehow remain evergreen today.

“Much remains to be done. Large sections of women remain excluded from political processes, whether in formal institutions or otherwise,” Valte wrote.