From today until Monday, more than 340 outstanding professional women from 23 nations, mostly from the Asia-Pacific, will gather in Taipei for the 2012 International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW International) Asia-Pacific Regional Conference. The meeting will be organized and hosted by BPW-Taiwan, a non-partisan and non-governmental organization headed by former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), founder of Taiwan’s feminist movement. The conference will address issues regarding the empowerment of Asian women and how empowered women can lead businesses and green economies.
BPW-Taiwan is a federation member of BPW international, an influential global network of business and professional women since 1930, devoted to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women in education, politics and economy at all levels. This worldwide organization has more than 100 affiliates in 96 states and a consultative status in the UN.
BPW International president Freda Miriklis, a prominent female leader in Australia, will be a keynote speaker at the conference. Five recent past presidents of BPW International from Finland, Switzerland, Thailand and the US, as well as a high-ranking UN representative, will also attend and speak during the meeting.
The goal of equal rights and participation of women is still far from being a reality today.
Nonetheless, its cause endures and has been boosted immensely since 1995, when Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the US’ first lady, made a very powerful and eloquent speech advocating for the rights of women, the poor and the disadvantaged at the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, which became a rallying point for women and human rights proponents.
Moreover, in her speech at the first Women and Economy Forum held in San Francisco last year, Clinton, now US secretary of state, urged government officials and business leaders to recognize the crucial role women play in innovative economic development and business expansion. She pointed out that there are nearly 6 million formal, female-owned small businesses in East Asia, and female-owned businesses are growing quickly in the economies of Southeast Asian coutries.
Here in Taiwan, after decades of reforms in education, laws and policies, and efforts made by many in all walks of life, considerable progress in gender equality, empowerment of women in education, employment, business and access to government positions, both elected and appointed, has been achieved. At present, 37 percent of Taiwan’s women hold college degrees or higher, which is higher than the average for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. Women also own a third of Taiwan’s business enterprise, and occupy top corporate positions across a spectrum of professions. While some of these women leaders are the “inheritors” who started at the top, most are “achievers” who climbed the corporate ladder and made it to the top.
Women are also quite active in Taiwan’s political arena.
Currently, 33 percent of the Legislative Yuan members are female, and many women have been elected mayors and county commissioners, and appointed to high positions in the government bureaucracy and the Cabinet. When measured by the UN Development Program’s indicators to compare international gender development, Taiwanese women rank first in Asia and fourth in the world.
However, women in the Asia- Pacific still have a long way to go to overcome the challenges to their empowerment. They face many barriers in their quest for equal pay, establishing their business and endeavors in other fields.
This is not attributed to legal barriers alone, but also to some cultural norms across the region that denigrate women and treat them differently because of their gender.
Such bias undermines women’s dignity and hinders their economic participation.
Indeed, the evidence clearly shows that female entrepreneurs across Asia encounter many obstacles. The World Bank’s 2010 Economic Opportunities for Women in East Asia and Pacific Region notes that while laws in the region show parity for men and women on paper, institutions often fail to implement these laws faithfully, and workplace policies and regulations are often too restrictive and unfriendly toward women.
To better understand and address the economic, policy and cultural barriers to women’s empowerment and economic entrepreneurship are vital for the growth and development of the region. Hence, BPW-Taiwan is taking the lead to fight the problems. During the three-day conference and the subsequent “twinning” activities, BPW-Taiwan will bring together business and professional women in the Asia-Pacific to promote both bilateral and regional networks of businesswomen, skills development and dialogue. Through discussions and brainstorming sessions, they can compare notes, exchange experiences and learn from others’ “success stories.”
Shirley Chang, associate professor emeritus and department chairwoman of library and information science at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania and former senior research fellow of Taiwan’s National Science Council, is convener of the Public Relations and International Affairs Committee of BPW-Taiwan.