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Choice for women

As International Women’s Day (March 8) approaches, our news feeds are once again filled with stories of successful women in science, business, and other professional fields. These are needed inspiration; such stories need to be heard by women who are still finding their footing in their careers, especially in professions dominated by men.

It’s essential to remember, though, that the advocacy for women’s rights is not strictly about their professional success. The point is that women and girls should have a choice in what they want to pursue and how they want to use their potential. It’s easy to say that this is already normalized in the Philippines considering how common it is for us to see women in workplaces. But we’re leaving out all the others who don’t feel like they have this choice.

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We have to first acknowledge that there is still a significant workforce gap between men and women in the country. Just because we see Filipino women in various occupations doesn’t mean we’ve afforded this right equitably. The Philippine Statistics Authority reports that the labor force participation gap between men and women has not changed much in the last two decades. It remained at 30 percentage points as of 2017, which is actually the highest it’s been in nine years (the lowest was 27.2 in 2015). This means that women in the Philippines are not joining our workforce as much as men are.

Perhaps this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—if only we were sure that Filipino women’s participation (or nonparticipation) in the labor force is due to their own informed choice. But apparently, it is not. The reality is that many Filipino women are still boxed in by sociocultural factors, and several studies support this.

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One such study was commissioned by the National Economic and Development Authority and released in 2019. The Neda reports that “[a]part from age, the study found culture—reflected in the patriarchal family structure, stereotyped gender roles and religion—also affecting female labor participation rate.”

In particular, “[m]ore patriarchal family structures reduce a woman’s employment rate by 8 to 13 percentage points,” the report says. “An extended paternity leave and additional parental leave will give husbands a fair share of caring for their babies.”

This deserves to be highlighted because it points to an all-too-common situation that Filipino women find themselves in: Having to give up their personal and professional development in order to be family carers.

Do women really have to make this sacrifice? Ideally, no, but Filipino women are compelled to because our culture traditionally dictates that

1) a woman’s role and fulfillment are in motherhood, and 2) mothers must be the primary carer of children while fathers work outside.

We are not yet warm to the idea of women choosing not to have children, or to the concept of family care-giving being shared equally between two parents. In some communities in the Philippines, it is still seen as odd, even embarrassing, for husbands to tend to their kids because that’s “the wife’s job.” It would be a leap in the right direction if men found it completely normal to have “a fair share of caring for their babies,” as Neda puts it.

This is only one example of how some traditional gender norms are still a hindrance to women and girls from choosing their own paths. And these are not just external barriers. At times, gender roles and limitations are internalized, like in the way a young Filipino woman might decide to avoid an engineering course because she’s been told that it’s a field for men, or in the way a woman might forgo a college education because she believes her only track is to be a housewife who is financially dependent on her husband. (Down the road, in more unfortunate cases, financial dependence becomes one factor why abused women cannot extricate themselves from their abusers, especially in situations involving childcare costs.)

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Again, it boils down to allowing women—all women—the choice to steer their own lives. Whether they decide to stay single and childless pursuing their career development, or to become full-time mothers and nurturers at home, or to try to balance multiple roles, they should be able to make that decision without pressure to stay within a mold. And as their family members, co-parents, friends, and colleagues, we have supporting roles to encourage them to pursue their own choice.

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TAGS: international women’s day, March 8, professional women, successful women, women in business, women in science
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