Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In Little Sandbox Preschool in Quezon City, four-year-old Isabella Sheng sits with her peers after a day of learning and play. Isabella, her hair in double braids, is a “little discoverer” — she’s in nursery — and she wants to be a teacher. What does she want to teach? “Fractions,” she says.
Beside her sit five-year-olds Lian Tan and Maggie Loreto. A level higher than Isabella, thus now a “little builder” (kindergarten level), Lian wants to be a fashion designer. It’s what she’s most interested about during play, says Mia Villavicencio, the owner of Little Sandbox, and who also used to teach the kids.
Maggie, for her part, wants to be a spy. She’s inspired by “Barbie: Spy Squad,” a trio comprised of Barbie and her two best friends, ballerinas who become undercover agents upon being discovered by a spy agency.
Inside the preschool, the girls easily pick up aspirations and lightly carry their dreams, answering seemingly innocuous questions with the most matter-of-fact answers. Why does Maggie want to be a spy? “Because it’s cool,” she responds immediately. Can boys be fashion designers too? “Of course,” says Lian, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
And why not? “One of Maggie’s classmates wants to be a soldier when he grows up,” shares Villavicencio. “The other girls play with him, march with him, create tanks. And you won’t hear the boys saying, you can’t do that, only boys can become soldiers. I had not heard it in the classroom.”
At home, Isabella plays with two brothers. “They play with each other's toys without labeling them as either for girls or boys only,” says her mother Diane Sheng.
Ten, 20 years from now, Isabella, Lian, and Maggie — more likely than not — will change dream careers, as it is with any other child who first unravels herself to the world. One of them may become a doctor. Another a lawyer. But another may still want to be a spy.
Inside the safe walls of school and home, kids “are encouraged to be whoever they want to be,” says Villavicencio. Outside, there seems to be a wealth of opportunity for Isabella, Lian, and Maggie, especially in a country that prides itself as the number one nation in the Asia-Pacific that has closed the gender gap between men and women.
The Global Gender Gap Report of 2016, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), seeks to measure gender disparities in four key areas: health, education, economic opportunity, and politics.
As of 2016, the Philippines ranks 7th out of 144 countries in the world in bridging the gender gap. The perception is that locally, the gap seems to have closed significantly — or there seems to be little to no disparity — in terms of educational attainment and health and survival between men and women.
The gender gap in politics and economic opportunity, however, can still be closed further in terms of electing more female leaders and assigning them ministerial positions in government, among others, as well as increasing the number of women who join the workforce. But overall, the report views the Philippines as one of the most gender-equal societies in the world.
The report is a useful tool in measuring differences of treatment between women and men. But it may have little to say about the invisible pressures that put women down in the 21st century.
“The glowing statistics of women’s achievements do not capture the negative experiences of women as they establish their footing in the world of work. The workplace is still a man’s world,” writes Maria Victoria Caparas, an associate professor in the University of Asia and the Pacific. Caparas has conducted several studies that discuss corporate family responsibility and the challenges facing women in the workforce.
“The WEF measures gender gap and not levels. It penalizes or rewards countries on the size of the gap, not on the levels of economic opportunities or access to education,” she says.
Thus, while the report can indicate that women lag behind men in labor participation, it does not detect that some women, in the first place, may not join the workforce as frequently as men because they often choose to care for the family. Neither does it detect that while women may have closed the gender gap on educational achievement with men, the content of such education may still reinforce harmful stereotypes about women.
Despite positive statistics and strides that women have made in business and leadership, unequal treatment manifests itself in the workplace in other ways, with those in less-than-ideal working conditions being the most vulnerable.
One such manifestation is in recruitment. “HR [human resources] managers don't normally ask men their plans about marriage, [but] women are asked if the employer sees high costs behind paid maternity leave,” says Caparas.
Companies see paid maternity leave through the perspective of costs even though they should not, says Atty. Amparita Sta. Maria, director of the Urduja Women’s Rights Desk and professor of law at the Ateneo Law School. “It’s a sexual reproductive role that women give birth, and she does not give birth alone,” she says.
“[The role] should be seen holistically — instead of saying I’m pregnant, the parents should say, we’re pregnant, because we’re in this together,” Sta. Maria adds. But this is not the case. At least, not yet.
“All things being equal, if choosing between hiring a man or woman, [the employer] would probably hire a man. And between a woman who’s married or single, [the employer] would probably hire the single one,” she says. “Lalo na if ‘yung time mo sa work on call or erratic, walang consistency.”
Availing of the benefit of maternity leave, contentious as it is in the first place, poses added repercussions to the working woman, such as the possibility of a prejudiced promotion and the pressure of finding a suitable substitute while on leave. “In other countries, the mindset is it’s something you just have to accommodate,” says Sta. Maria.
Women also suffer from the perception that their responsibilities within the family may cause poor performance at work, even though a newly married man does not suffer from the same perception, says Caparas. Working women who hesitate to travel far for work may appear less interested in career advancement, thus affecting their promotion.
“We try to make everything gender neutral. We try to set up an environment to remove that notion that dolls are just for girls. Our kinder girls build their own rocket ships, and it’s not something you’d expect from girls. It’s sharing interest [with the boys].”
Even a seemingly gender-blind age cap for scholarships can negatively affect a woman’s desire to pursue latter studies, after she has chosen to prioritize her family. Sta. Maria herself, who pursued further studies at a later time than her peers, obtained her Master of Laws at the University of Toronto (under a Reproductive Health Fellowship) after the university did not take the 40-year-old limit for scholarships against her.
“If you apply a gender perspective on that, percentage-wise, I’m sure, more women would be excluded or affected by that [age] cap because they have to raise their families first,” she says. “There are a lot of things na mukhang gender neutral, but if you apply it, it will work — more probably than not — against more women than men.”
In the workplace, deep-seated assumptions about the ideal, effective, and dedicated worker persist: one who is focused on the job, subordinates all personal goals to company goals, and has no qualms about spending time in the office and being away from home to fulfill the rigors of a job, says Caparas.
These assumptions, while holding up both men and women to the same standard of what makes a good employee, nevertheless creates a backlash that affects women more than men.
Caparas points out: “Philippine society appears to practice and value gender egalitarianism as per many research studies … However the workplace, even if it is a microcosm of society, can be run by values that are contrary to societal values.”
While Philippine culture consistently values the family and recognizes the nurturing role that women play in it, in the workplace, there is a failure in some instances to recognize the same nurturing role. Rather, what is emphasized is the ideal of a productive worker. The conflict works to the woman’s disadvantage — paving the way for subtle discriminatory treatment to creep in.
Even as there are nuanced ways by which implicit discrimination seeps in the workplace, it is good to know that in the Philippines, these can be overcome by the power of strong female leadership.
From the view of an outsider looking in, the Philippines looks like it is more gender-equal than other nations. Sitting in a panel of four women for Google Philippines’ and Cosmo.ph’s celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, Stephanie Sy, CEO and founder of Thinking Machines Data Science, says: “In the Philippines, I have seen a lot less gender discrimination. There are a lot of strong women leaders.”
Sy herself sits at the head of a data science consultancy firm where most of the employees are young and skilled women. She used to work abroad, where discrimination comes out in a more implicit way, as when a male-dominated workplace dictates the kind of conversation and environment one has to work in.
But existing along with unseen prejudices that still manage to find their way into the workplace are empowering perceptions of progress that women have made. Four-year-old Isabella’s mom, Diane, observes: “I work for a firm where the board is half men and half women … We've seen progress in having the same kinds of opportunities being available for both men and women.”
Diane, like her husband, works and contributes to the family’s income. There is a clear recognition of what her dual role entails. “We have four kids, ages 13, seven, four, and three, so it is a bit difficult raising them especially since my husband and I are both working … After the whole work day, I still have mommy duties to attend to at home, that is, studying with my seven-year-old son, playing with the girls, et cetera.”
Fortunately, the existence of “mommy duties” does not affect how Diane sees her work’s potential to provide fair opportunities. “From my previous to my current employer, I have seen how opportunities are made available to both men and women alike without bias on gender,” she says.
Villavicencio, who herself owns the preschool where Diane’s daughter studies, thinks people are more “open-minded” now to notions of gender neutrality, a quality that she hopes can be passed on to the next generation.
“Philippine society appears to practice and value gender egalitarianism as per many research studies … However the workplace, even if it is a microcosm of society, can be run by values that are contrary to societal values.”
She herself is aware of her role, as an educator, in preventing stereotypical assumptions about gender to creep into the school. After all, notions of race, gender, sexuality, or class are not inherent, but learned.
Inside a room in Little Sandbox, a poster of a policewoman (as opposed to that of a policeman), annotated with the children’s perceptions of what a police officer does, is placed on the wall, to help dispel popular perceptions that being a police officer is a job only for men.
Moreover, neatly put away are blocks of wood, which all of the children use during play. “The blocks are always a sure hit, where they can build or do anything they want,” says Villavicencio. “These are mostly open-ended toys that can help them create. They’re open-ended, which [means they] can be anything.”
“We try to make everything gender neutral. We try to set up an environment to remove that notion that dolls are just for girls,” she adds. “Our kinder girls build their own rocket ships, and it’s not something you’d expect from girls. It’s sharing interest [with the boys].”
As an educator, Villavicencio is able to observe what drives behaviors and attitudes between children. “There are kids who prefer to be with all girls, some kids, all boys. There are also some kids who play with both boys and girls,” she says. “So it’s all a matter of personality, maybe, on what interests them. More than gender, it’s based on personality.”
It is a widespread perception that the battle for women’s rights is largely a battle for gender equality. Yet Caparas and Sta. Maria are both wary of the term “gender equality,” especially when applied not strictly in the context of legal rights, but environment and culture.
Caparas, in fact, pledges for more gender flexibility for women at work. “Parity, as any reality in life, has negative consequences. High women labor participation can result to lack of the mother’s presence at home, discipline problems in school,” she says. It can also lead to unrealistic standards for women, one that fails to take into account their differences, especially in reproductive roles.
“Sometimes, hardcore feminism wants us to leave what is ours by nature — the nurturing side of women. I fully believe we need to work with nature, not against it,” adds Caparas. “Because if we do, it's women themselves who will be at the losing end.”
To consider the nurturing side of women is to come up with a different “excellent worker standard” for women, one which provides them a varied and extensive set of opportunities “to make work really work,” says Caparas.
One way is to first provide women with opportunities to start an equally-paying owned-business, or engage in freelance jobs, before going into full-time employment, recommends Caparas. The key is flexibility, not only for women, but also men, to combine family responsibilities with a successful career, and to prevent brain drain from workplaces.
Beyond the workplace, Sta. Maria emphasizes gender sensitivity. “We do not want to be treated identically, because we’re not,” she says, in the context of the long history of inequality that has plagued women, as it did the disabled, children, and other disadvantaged individuals. “It’s not the same as [equality], because we’re not equal in oppression, we’re not equal in situations … it should be [about] accommodating differences.”
Gender sensitivity has two levels: recognition of the difference in circumstance, and the willingness to respond to that difference. An ideal example of gender sensitivity at work is that of a judge who asked Sta. Maria, in the course of her gender sensitivity trainings, if it is gender sensitive to ask a pregnant lawyer, conducting a direct examination in court, to sit down if she finds it difficult to continue her examination while standing.
“All things being equal, if choosing between hiring a man or woman, [the employer] would probably hire a man. And between a woman who’s married or single, [the employer] would probably hire the single one.”
“If you actually told the lawyer to go home and stop practicing for a while because she’s pregnant, then that would be discrimination, because the way you recognize her condition and the way you address it is by stopping her from exercising her profession,” says Sta. Maria. “You’re just in the guise of protecting her, but you leave her no choice but to go home.”
“But ‘yung ganun [you made her sit down], it’s not discrimination because she’s situated differently,” she explains. “You have to address how she can perform her work in the same comfort level as the man, who’s not pregnant at all or who has no difficulty walking or standing in the same position.”
“It’s okay, because you accommodated her position, which is different. That is gender sensitivity, the accommodation,” Sta. Maria adds.
Yet gender sensitivity, or flexibility as applied in the workplace, is not easily implemented, which is why constant trainings and exposure to examples is important. The key may be to begin early.
In Little Sandbox Preschool, where Isabella, Maggie, and Lian are still beginning to learn how the world works, their mentor Villavicencio thinks about gender equality, the way she sees it when her students learn and play.
“I think it all boils down to respect,” she says, “when they respect [one another]’s interests, [one another]’s choices, ideas.” From this youthful respect hopefully blooms a nuanced understanding of what it means to be any gender, in a world that must find spaces to accommodate its differences.
“There’s no putting down of each other’s feelings, dreams, and aspirations,” adds Villavicencio. “No one has told Maggie you can’t be a spy, because only boys can be spies. They respect her, they know it’s encouraged to support her, let [them] think for themselves, be who they want to be.”