The Gender Gap: What Asia Can Learn From The Philippines

HCLI Research
Published 13 October 2017

Dr Michael Daniels, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, examines the business case for female participation in business, asking what we can learn from the Philippines, one of Asia’s most forward-thinking countries when it comes to advancing women.

Evidence abounds that gender diversity is a key business driver. Because women account for about half of the potential talent pool, a nation or a company’s success depends significantly on how it educates and utilises them. Unfortunately, Asian countries and businesses have yet to fully deploy the potential of their female populations and employees. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has recognised this issue and included gender equality among its top five strategic drivers for its Strategy 2020 proposal.

In the report, it states that, “without harnessing the talents, human capital and economic potential of women, Asia’s goals of poverty reduction and sustainable development will not be met.”

The Business Case for Gender Diversity

There is a considerable amount of research to support the claim that gender diversity is good for both nations and business as a whole. The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report claimed that closing the gender gap in employment would boost Japan’s GDP by as much as 16%. Similarly, a recent study by Professor Jennifer Berdahl at the University of British Columbia, Canada, found that athletes from more gender-equal nations performed better in the Olympics, even after accounting for factors like GDP and population size. Though it is perhaps obvious that gender equality benefits female athletes, the study also found that this effect holds for men too.

In the business sphere, a 2010 report by McKinsey & Company found that better representation of women on corporate boards was associated with greater profitability of the firm. Thus, gender parity is clearly an important driver for success of both male and female talent.

The Philippines: Leading the Pack

The Philippines is a bright spot in Asia with regard to the status of women. According to the Global Gender Gap Report of 2014, the Philippines is ranked ninth in the world in terms of gender parity and was the only Asian country (except for New Zealand and Australia) in the global top 50. It was also the top-ranked country in the world in terms of educational attainment, as well as in health and survival of women. Women are also more heavily represented in business in the Philippines than in neighbouring countries. In a recent report by global professional services firm, Grant Thornton, the Philippines ranked first for the proportion of women holding senior management roles in Southeast Asia, and fifth globally, with 37% of such roles occupied by women. In addition, women comprise an average of 34% of corporate boards in the Philippines, far surpassing the global average of 19%.

Clearly, the Philippines is more progressive than both its Asian neighbours and a majority of Western countries in terms of gender diversity. According to the 2013 Global Talent Competitiveness Index (a research venture jointly undertaken by graduate business school, INSEAD; HR consultancy, Adecco; and the Human Capital Leadership Institute), the Philippines has the strongest talent landscape of all lower middle-income countries in Asia-Pacific. It even scores higher than Thailand, a country that falls into the upper middle-income group. One rationale for this is that the general upward mobility of women in the Philippines makes the talent pool more robust.

A History of Gender Equality

There is evidence that the equal status of women has been established in the Filipino archipelago for a long time. Before the Spanish colonised what became known as the Philippines in the mid 16th century, the indigenous peoples of the region showed great reverence for women and the matriarchal lineage. Rather than being relegated to household chores and child rearing, as was the case for women elsewhere in Southeast Asia, pre-colonial Filipino women could own or inherit family property, engage in trade, fight as warriors, and even hold positions as religious leaders (called babaylan), who were called on to act as healers and seers. This relative gender egalitarianism is even evident in the Tagalog creation myth, whereby man and woman came from the same piece of bamboo after a bird pecked at it.

This perspective on the place of women in society was challenged when the Spanish colonised the Philippines, bringing Catholicism and other Western — largely patriarchal — ideals and institutions. However, Filipino society emerged from centuries of colonial rule with its matriarchal roots largely intact. As a case in point, the Philippines is one of the few Asian countries to have elected two female presidents since its independence.

Women in Business

In addition to a relatively egalitarian perspective on gender, what else might account for the success of women in the Philippines? HQ Asia asked senior businesswomen in the Philippines about the factors that make women so successful there. Karen Batungbacal, Executive General Manager of insurance firm QBE Group Shared Services Ltd, believes that one catalyst for women’s success in business is the “the presence of extended family and availability of domestic staff in the Philippines that allows women to have children while also climbing the career ladder.” Mylene Caparas, an Executive Vice President at one of the largest banks in the Philippines, believes that the high expectations parents have for their daughters helps them develop into especially driven and capable young adults. This helps to break down gender stereotypes she says, adding, “The Philippines is matriarchal, with the mother often playing a dominant role in running the household. Parents often expect daughters to participate in doing the same, while also doing well in school, which pushes them to be high achievers.”

The Philippines as a Model for Asia

There are several sectors where Asian organisations and states can learn from the Philippines, including:

Government and Regulatory Actors

States must play their part with progressive policymaking. For example, Norway was the first country to mandate quotas for the proportion of women on corporate boards. This has resulted in the Scandinavian country having the highest degree of gender equality in the world. The Philippines legislature passed the Magna Carta of Women Act in 2009, which promotes gender equality in government by mandating quotas for the proportion of women in government jobs. It also empowers the state to take measures to encourage gender diversity in the private sector, though it stops short of mandated quotas. Other countries should follow suit and set an example at the highest levels of government. Some non-governmental entities are taking steps in Asia, like the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which recently created a rule that companies must report on their board’s gender diversity to be listed. Asian governments should consider following suit, particularly those that govern more traditionally minded electorates like Japan. Finally, Asian governments should focus their efforts on early education aimed at empowering young girls and educating young boys on the importance of gender diversity.


Organisations need to make gender diversity a priority. A 2010 McKinsey report, Women Matter, found that a majority of leaders do believe that gender diversity impacts a firm’s financial returns. However, there were large gaps between leaders at the C-level and those at the middle-manager level, as well as between male and female respondents. The data suggest that men at the middle-manager level are the least likely to believe this to be true (only 50%). Thus, companies should do a better job educating their leaders on the importance of gender diversity.

In addition, companies should focus on creating programmes to help women succeed, such as flexible working hours and other family-support programmes like onsite day care. Finally, other women-focused skill-building programmes, mentorship programmes and quotas for women in senior positions would be effective methods to more fully utilise women in the workplace.

Individual Leadership

Leaders need to stay vigilant in promoting the equality of women in the workplace. This starts at the top of the organisation. The McKinsey report Women Matter found that an organisation’s CEO monitoring gender equality initiatives had the greatest effect on the proportion of women in senior leadership roles. It is not enough for a company to institute policies and objectives related to gender diversity; individual leaders need to lead by example by fairly considering women for senior roles and treating them as equals to men. In many cases, male leaders may not even be aware of their own biases, so programmes that focus on unconscious bias training should be utilised to remove old stereotypes and promote the tremendous potential of women in Asia.

This article first appeared in HQ Asia Issue 9 (2015).

For more insights on women leaders in the workplace, download our report Women in Enterprises: Unlocking the Careers of Women@Work.

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