Soft-spoken and naturally shy, Taiwan’s first female leader President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was not an obvious trailblazer, but after taking over a party once seen as chauvinistic and defying sexist critics, she calls on other women to shrug off self-doubt and be “brave” in the #MeToo era.
In an interview with the Agence France Presse on Monday, Tsai, 61, described the difficulties she faced in countering “traditional” attitudes among voters and party members who did not believe she was up to the job because of her gender.
“This is, in a way, a very traditional society,” Tsai said. “People think that women tend to be weaker, tend to be less resilient, and people usually have this question of whether a woman can exercise leadership like a man.”
The former law professor worked as an international trade negotiator before taking on her first major public role in 2000, when she served as chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council.
It was not until 2008 that she entered front line party politics, becoming chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its first female leader.
It was not an easy fit, she said.
Tsai has described herself as introverted and said that as a child, she never liked spending time with large groups — a challenge when she first started campaigning as party leader.
“I was not speaking loud enough, and I was not speaking with big body language and I was not able to communicate with the public in a language they were familiar with,” she said.
When she took on the leadership, the DPP was in disarray after losing the presidency and was perceived as “chauvinist,” she added. “I think at the beginning, [party supporters] had doubts whether this woman would be able to lead them.”
However, Tsai said she countered the doubters and her own lack of experience by making a determined push to meet voters and relearn Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), spoken in the DPP’s southern heartland, rather than Mandarin.
Nowadays, she said she likes to interact with people “to a certain extent.”
“When you look into the eyes of people after this interaction, they look more confident and feel more secure and that is a time that I feel that this is all worthwhile,” she said.
Tsai, who has faced sexist comments from some critics attacking her status as a single childless woman, praised the global #MeToo movement highlighting gender discrimination and harassment.
“I think #MeToo is good to tell the male side that there are things that are important to females and therefore you have to be more aware of these issues,” she said.
“The same applies to women — they should be told they should be brave and they should not be shy. They should come out and speak what they want to say,” Tsai added.
In the Legislative Yuan, 38 percent of legislators are women, a higher percentage than in China, Japan and South Korea, as well as the US and Britain.
The number of women serving in the military is also growing, Tsai said, but despite changing attitudes, Tsai, like other women in power, faces regular questions about her wardrobe, particularly about why she never wears a skirt — favoring dark-colored trouser suits instead.
She said it does not bother her, although she believes that appearance plays a part in political life across gender lines.
“The sense is that you have to look pleasant in front of the public,” she said. “You have to appear to be very confident in yourself.”
Additional reporting by staff writer
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