Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Women in the workplace

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.


I was asked by Zontians to sit at a panel to discuss education and the job market for women at their international conference last week at the Hotel Sofitel. The main speaker at the panel was renowned advocated of women’s issues, Commission on Higher Education chairperson Patricia Licuanan. Three of us—an academician from the Ateneo de Manila University, a science and technology advocate, and myself—were asked to pick points from Licuanan’s talk and to present what we feel were the challenges facing women in the area of education and employment.

The consensus derived at the discussion was that women have indeed come a long way in their struggle to achieve equal opportunities in education and the workplace, but that a number of challenges remain.

In response to a comment from one of the participant, I (as the only male panelist and in fact the only male person in the whole room aside from the production people of the conference) made the observation that the concept of equality in education and in the workplace, particularly in the local context, needed to be defined as I didn’t think there was a clear definition of what the concept truly meant. I made the observation that cultural traditions and social norms probably needed to be taken into account in developing a framework of what gender equality really entails in the country, particularly when applied to conditions in the workplace. I was hoping that a spirited discussion on the topic would ensue but I guess it was the wrong forum and audience for the purpose.

I shared with the audience the results of a study on the anatomy of the glass ceiling conducted by Accenture (the glass ceiling is a symbolic barrier that blocks the upward mobility of women in social hierarchies). The study analyzed the existence and the “thickness” of the glass ceiling in six countries, namely, Australia, Austria, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Germany and the Philippines. Values were assigned on three dimensions: Individual, society, and company. The values measured the presence of social support on each of these three dimensions—the higher the value derived by the study, the greater the presence of obstacles or barriers that in effect contributed to the relative thickness of the glass ceiling.

According to the Accenture study, the thickness of the glass ceiling in the Philippines was more pronounced at the individual (3.4 in a scale where 6 was the highest) and company (3.8) dimensions. The values across the six countries in the individual and company dimensions were not spread out, which indicated that the glass ceiling continues to be present even among the most developed countries with individuals and companies still contributing the main sources of barriers. What was really most interesting was that the study found that the Philippines fared best among the six countries in the third dimension, which was societal support. The country attained a total value of 2.8 with Australia, Austria and Switzerland tied at second place (a far 4. 2), Germany (4.8) and finally United Kingdom (5.0).

The relatively good standing of the Philippines in the society dimension was attributed largely to the matriarchal nature of Philippine society. I also noted that the presence of many influential women thought leaders in the country was also a key factor for the presence of established social support for the issues of women at the macro level of Philippine society. It’s not accidental really that we’ve produced two women Presidents, a woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a number of highly respected women legislators and civic leaders. In contrast, most of business is still dominated by men and industries remain largely as an exclusive boys’ club, with a few exceptions.

As a result, we have been greatly successful in the area of passing key legislation designed to break institutional barriers against, provide for the distinct needs of, and put in place safeguards for, women.

For example, we were able to pass the Magna Carta for Women early this year. It is a landmark law that removes all forms of discrimination against women and provides for adequate protection and welfare benefits for women. A key provision of the bill is the provision of special leave benefit of two months leave with full pay following surgery caused by gynecological disorders for women, support services to enable women to balance their family obligations and work responsibilities, including but not limited, to the establishment of day care centers and breastfeeding stations.

Also this year, the 37-year prohibition on night work for women was lifted courtesy of RA 10151. The Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, the Solo Parents Act, and the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children are some of the other laws that supposedly ensure protection for women.

So yes, we have been very successful in hacking away at the glass ceiling in the area of societal support. The problem is that there is a wide disconnect between initiatives at the larger social level and at the level of industry and among individuals. For example, the general perception among industry is that legislation is imposed on business organizations without consideration of the costs entailed by the measures. Not that industry is not willing to shoulder the costs, just that it would be a lot better if attempts to share the costs are made, particularly by government. The issue really is that there have been very little attempt to dialogue with industry and to arrive at a more strategic framework that situates all these initiatives within a larger human resource management and development agenda that takes into account the real needs and concerns of both industry and workers – women, specifically.

For example, many of the pending legislation in congress are hodge-podge measures that provide all kinds of additional leave benefits for women—such as increasing further the number of paid maternity leaves, special leaves for spouses of overseas Filipino workers, temporary medical leave for birth-related emergencies, pre-natal leaves, family leaves so that women can take care of sick family members, etc. In fact we really should all be wondering why our legislators seem to think the whole issue of benefit for women is limited to providing extra day offs.

In general, however, the statistics and the anecdotal evidence that were presented in the forum validated what many of us already know: There are more men in the workplace, the average pay for women is slightly lower than those for men although the rate women’s rate of employment is higher than that of men’s, and that the traditional gender stereotypes about what jobs are for men and what jobs are for women continues. There are more men at the higher levels of power in industries. The glass ceiling is still there. Discrimination against women is no longer rampant, but ironically, the same measures that have been designed to protect and safeguard the rights of women in the workplace are paving the way for newer forms of discrimination.

I thought I would end by sharing another interesting bit that came up during the forum. A participant stood up to gently chide Licuanan for the continued existence of nursing schools in the country that deserve to be closed off already. Licuanan, ever the congenial diplomat, promised that CHED will continue to crack the whip. Being the only male in the forum, I figured I was allowed to be politically incorrect, so I lashed by reminding people that really, the reason why we have a surplus of nurses in the country is not because the CHED allows nursing schools to continue to operate. The reason is because parents continue to send their children to nursing schools. Sometimes we really need to get our perspectives checked: It is not government’s fault that students continue to go to nursing schools—this is a parenting issue and one that we cannot abrogate to others.

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