Grassroots & Governance

A foreigner was once quoted as publicly saying that the best man in the Philippines is the Filipino woman. It is not surprising therefore that an international accrediting organization has ranked the Philippines as number one in the world in percentage of women in senior executive positions, many of them actually being CEOs. Although we have had two women presidents, a distinction the richest nation in the world has not achieved, the fact is the women presidents have gotten there through derived credentials: Cory Aquino’s husband who was martyred was presidential timbre, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s father was president.

Before I was born, women in this country could not vote. My paternal grandma, who was president of the Tacloban Woman’s Club, made public speeches advocating suffrage for women. In the 1970s, when my mother wanted to buy land on credit, married women could not borrow from a bank unless their husbands allowed it in writing. She therefore asked me to officially be the borrower since my dad was loan averse and she was buying the land without telling him.

My mother’s story is remarkable. She never went to high school, and came from the family of an immigrant from China who had lost his trading business and his home when he became a gambler. Mama’s mother, who was a tiny but emotionally strong woman, died early of a heart attack probably because of her struggles, before she reached the age of 50. My mom, being the eldest, became virtual mother to her siblings. She had to stop schooling. But she was awesome. She educated herself by reading my textbooks as I went all the way to college. Her favorite subjects were history and literature. She also read my leisure books including those by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh; but her favorite was Anne Morrows Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Sea. She also subscribed to Reader’s Digest, and read my dad’s magazines (Time, Newsweek, Life, and Saturday Evening Post). All her readings enabled her to catch up with my very articulate and well-informed Dad, and his college-educated sisters. She also managed the household budget very tightly, prioritizing her children’s education. Consequently, all of her seven daughters finished college; three of them becoming medical doctors. The two boys did not have the patience to finish college but ended up supporting their families comfortably enough.

Filipinas have certainly had to struggle. Nevertheless, we’ve certainly come a long way. In the advertising industry where I once worked for several years, young women today are CEOs. I only got as far as VP-GM but at the time, that was quite a feat. Even when I became the first female account director of J. Walter Thompson in the Asia Pacific region, I learned later that my male contemporaries were paid better than I was. In my naiveté. I used to wonder why they had nicer cars and lived in fancier apartments than I did. Hehe.

The road for women’s “liberation” has not been smooth; and today the struggle continues. But the Filipina has demonstrated true grit; and I guess our backbones were strengthened at home, where our mothers gave us responsibilities at an early age. I also wonder sometimes if the Filipino mother’s tendency to spoil her sons has caused so many of them to mature late, if at all.

My grandson who now has his own family has turned out to be an egalitarian when it comes to gender issues. He and his wife both work; and they share family expenses equitably. He also helps care for their baby. Because they went through a “discovery retreat” before they got engaged, they seem to have avoided the traumas of adjustment to early married life. I am very impressed and pleased with how my granddaughter-in-law is managing her situation. Again, she is not aggressive; but is assertive enough so that their relationship is healthy. She keeps her maiden name and my grandson doesn’t make an issue of it. Unlike my Dad, my grandson helped change diapers, and helped carry and bathe their baby. I am told that my grandson’s colleagues tend to have the same egalitarian attitudes.

It looks like the gender revolution has been progressing, even if only in the urban areas. I am optimistic that women’s role in running our country will increase over time. I think our concern now should be the high school drop-out rate among the boys. Perhaps there should now be a “Men’s Liberation” movement to ensure that men mature early enough. Right now, there is so much blatant immaturity and egocentricity among men in power. Filipina mothers need to be more conscious of the need to raise boys who will become responsible, mature adults. It is the girls who are given responsibilities early on. This is probably why they turn out very often, in my professional experience, as generally more dependable when it comes to work.

Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s rights continues. Under the current national leadership, it is constantly threatened by insecure machismo. Strong women like Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Senator Leila de Lima and Vice-President Leni Robredo still suffer constant denigration.

Perhaps the women too, need to be reoriented on how to raise their sons. Perhaps parenting needs to be incorporated into the school curriculum. Parenting, after all, is at the core of human development. The more egalitarian our society becomes, the better-off we should become.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.