Asian Women And Gender Discrimination Experiences

Gender discrimination is something many Asian women constantly face.

Passive, docile and submissive are just some of the common stereotypes ascribed to Asian women.

As I wrote in Why Males Are the Favoured Sex In Asian Cultures, in Asian cultures women are seen as less capable than males. The mentality ‘boys over girls’ or ‘men are better than woman’ is often championed at home and at work.

It's time we recognise each other for who we are.

It’s time we recognise each other for who we are | Weekly Photo Challenge: I’d Rather Be…

Growing up in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, this sentiment surrounded me in subtle and non-subtle ways. As a kid brought up in a traditional Chinese family, I never agreed with this train of thought. These days I still don’t.

As more Asian women stand up for themselves, they face numerous challenges to be heard, seen and taken seriously.

However it’s no doubt encouraging to see more Asian women challenging stereotypes and achieving what they want to achieve.

Chasing individuality

It’s more honourable to be male than female in many Asian cultures. Traditional Asian families seek to marry women off as they aren’t seen as a ‘long-term investment’ and unable to carry on the family name – unable to carry on patriarchal responsibility.

In Japan, married women are still required by law to take their partner’s surname. A marriage here is only lawfully recognised if both parties share the same surname.

Over the years more women are constructing a sense of ownership around their name. When the 1950 Marriage Law banning arranged marriages was passed in China, women rushed to register their names to have claims on inheritance.

We all have the right to choose how we want to look, who we want to be.

We all have the right to choose how we want to look, who we want to be.

In many Confucian societies and places such as China and Malaysia, Chinese women retain their last names when they get married. At the same time they are informally known by their partner’s last name.

Then there is the concept of rù zhuì (入赘) as Jocelyn Eikenburg of Speaking of China writes about. Rù zhuì relates to the instances where a Chinese man ‘marries’ into a well-off woman’s family for a more practical future and take on a woman’s last name.

Every name is part of a generation. Every name is a generation and a culture in itself. Every name is a someone. A name consists of history, present stories and one’s experiences.

Each of us has the power to make a difference.

Each of us has the power to make a difference.

Taking on different roles

It’s common for Asian women to be ascribed stereotypical selective roles. Confucius’ five hierarchical relationships are centred on the family with an emphasis on women being compliant wives and mothers.

The main Confucian text Analects dating back to the Classical Period in China echoes this, alluding to the notion that a good woman is an illiterate one. Women in this period were relegated to kinship roles and met wishes of closely-related men.

With planning and hard work, there’s no limit to what any woman can achieve. The more one works hard at something, the more opportunities one creates for themselves.

Educated Asian women are increasingly choosing career over family today in the post-One Child Policy era. Since 2006 female registration at universities in China surpassed that of males and employment to population ratio of women stands at 73%.

At the same time, career-oriented Asian women are increasingly termed ‘leftover women’ or shèng nǚ (剩女). To many of these women, shèng nǚ is synonymous with victory and the companionship of marriage can be achieved through cohabiting. As Autumn Asborough of West Dates East writes about being pressured to have a Chinese son in a Chinese family, there are many reasons to not have babies and adoption is always an option.

‘Let your (younger) brother go first’. This was what my folks said to me over and over when I was younger. Despite constantly being told to sit down and shut up as an Asian girl, I dreamt of being an independent, self-sufficient person climbing the corporate ladder. Today, I’m not exactly that image but I am an accomplished writer.

All of us have the ability to observe, reflect and achieve.

All of us have the ability to observe, reflect and achieve.

Exploring sexuality

Gender specific labels perpetuate power hierarchies between different genders, undermining women. Long-standing honorifics such as ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’ often have patriarchal undertones. The same goes for the terms ‘boyfriend’, ‘girlfriend’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife.

Also, in Chinese culture a young unmarried woman is commonly addressed as xiăo jiĕ (小姐) and a married woman/head-wife tài tài (太太). In contrast men are called xiān shēng (先生), translated as ‘born first’. While it’s a term connoting eldership lessons, it’s also a term used to address males respectfully.

Alongside keeping their last names, Asian women are being more open-minded towards relationships. More women in Japan are opting out of marriage. Some women in South Korea rather stay single as opposed to facing patriarchal unfairness that comes with marriage. That means honorifics are becoming used less, perhaps irrelevant.

In each of us there is a superhero.

In each of us there is a superhero.

Christy Birmingham of When Women Inspire writes to be gender inclusive means to be open to anyone, open to being together with anyone of any gender affiliation. Gender fluidity is traditionally frowned upon and unspoken in Asian cultures.

These days Asian women are more open towards being lesbian, gay or genderqueer. They negotiate fluid identities within supportive LGBTQIA+ getaways and queer women parties in Asia.  Gay women are also seeking to normalise the gay experience through film.

For many modern Asian women, being in a relationship is about being able to freely express oneself and respecting each other’s wants and individuality. We are more than the salutations affixed to us.

It’s why I don’t like being called ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’, ‘girlfriend’ or ‘wife’, much preferring to be called by my name. When it comes to long term relationships, personally I feel ‘partner’ is the best word to describe whom you’re with – the term acknowledges each other as

Speaking up is a right for all of us.

Speaking up is a right for all of us.

Rising above the bamboo ceiling

Speaking up at work and advancing their careers are challenging for Asian women all over the world. For instance, while women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive they still need male testimonials if they want to run a business. Maternity harassment complaints are on the rise in Japan.

Over 230 culturally diverse businesswomen were surveyed in the Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling report from Diversity Council Australia. The survey found Muslim women feel corporate workplaces in Australia see those wearing the hijab as incapable in leadership. Only one in ten respondents felt their leadership traits were recognised at work.

The bamboo ceiling is not just real, but it seems to be here to stay. It has always been, and still is, a challenge for Asian women to be heard at work in Australia. As Malaysian-born, ex-ASEX-200 entity CEO Ming Long said, Asian employees in Australia who don’t conform to being quiet are often labelled as aggressive and disliked. She mentions employers prefer hiring someone on the basis of cultural fit and ‘merit is a trap. It really depends on who’s defining it.’

Some of us fit stereotypes and don't mind this. Each to their own.

Some of us fit stereotypes and don’t mind this. Each to their own.

Elsewhere in Singapore, while they are paid less than men, Asian women are occupying senior management positions while juggling family commitments. There are increasingly more Chinese women entrepreneurs in China and more are becoming self-made billionaires.

Consequently, many Asian women are confident about showcasing their strengths and abilities in the workforce. Despite the challenges, many are determined to work hard to challenge and speak out about gender stereotypes.

In addition, although menstrual leave is a legal right for women Japan, South Korea and China, many women choose not to take it due to social stigma. Some have argued period leave can lead to more inequality in the workplace as not every person gets a period. China’s swimmer Fu Yuanhui openly talked about swimming on her period during the Olympics finished a respectable fourth in her race. Funnily enough Chinese media focused on Fu swimming on her period.

Embracing differences

It’s still a long way before Asian women are viewed as more than their stereotypes. It’s a long way before Asian women get more opportunity at home, work and in broader society.

Notably, while it’s encouraging to see more Asian women standing up for themselves, there’s also nothing wrong with Asian women having quiet demeanours, staying in the background and being comfortable with this trait. After all, there are still many willingly quiet and studious Asian students around the world and some Asian women are happy to be obedient housewives.

Just like how not all Asian women want to have children, not all Asian women are comfortable with being outspoken and speaking up loudly. Some prefer flying under the radar and are quiet achievers.  It doesn’t mean quiet Asian women don’t have an opinion – they probably just want to share opinions in a more reserved manner.

Share. Stand together. Understand each other.

Share. Stand together. Understand each other.

As an introverted Asian-Australian, I rather not share my opinions face-to-face in front of a big crowd. Instead I prefer to articulate my thoughts in smaller settings or through writing.

Women come in all shapes, sizes and all shades of colour and characters. Some of us fit the stereotype. Some of us don’t. Some of us might fit both stereotype and non-stereotype. Each of us has different ways of expressing ourselves. On recognising each other for who we are, author C. Joybell C. said:

 ‘We are all equal in the fact that we are all different. We are all the same in the fact that we will never be the same. We are united by the reality that all colours and all cultures are distinct and individual.’

Some might read this post thinking I dislike parts of being Chinese and a Chinese woman at that. Yes and no. While I like listening and being quiet, to me sharing opinions is equally important when it comes to understanding each other. While I like being independent and doing things on my own, to me there’s also much to learn from working together and learning from each other.

At the end of the day, every Asian woman has the right to make the choices one wants to make and be who one wants to be.

Have you encountered or seen gender discrimination?


225 thoughts on “Asian Women And Gender Discrimination Experiences

  1. Mabel I always love your honesty. I always feel we are having an in-depth conversation together. Your writing continues to grow.
    Gender stuff is soo complicated isnt it? I meet with women the world over and dont think we have come as far as we could/should have. We are more vocal but we are still mistreated – men would not allow it for themselves. We carry more of a load in the family but…
    I met a Muslim woman recently on a plane trip to family (her husband had recently died). She had no idea how to make plane changes and getting her luggage. Two of us (women) helped her figure it out tho we did not speak her language.
    Women need each other!!!


    • Thanks for your kind words, Leslie. There is always so much to talk about when it comes to fair opportunity. You are right, women are still mistreated and often it is not our choice. Sure, we have a choice to stay quiet but that won’t change things.

      So lovely and so kind of you to help out the Muslim woman on a plane trip. She must have been touched and your actions would probably have been felt and remembered. Helping each other certainly brings us together.


  2. So much depth here Mabel, and it is very enlightening. I have learned a lot here. I have lived in a rural part of Canada where the vast majority of the population is white Caucasian. There is labour laws in place in Canada regarding discrimination on your gender, it does take place. I worked in a factory for 11 years where there was about 250 workers on the factory floor. Only 4 were female. The factory eventually closed. Where I work now, the warehouse has equal male and female, and in the offices where I recently got promoted to, there are far more females. They are professionals, they are focused leaders. Our company is growing like crazy, which is very exciting.
    As an endurance runner, there are so many female runners that I have the greatest respect for. It has not been easy for them. Before 1972 females were not even allowed to run in races like the Boston Marathon. This is the United States. Have recently been in a few races where females have won 1st place overall, which is so cool.


    • You are very observant, Carl. Women have come a long way. Lovely to hear your office isn’t shy about giving opportunity to both men and women – and recognising individuals for their work and skills.

      In a race like a marathon and this world really is one big competition. Everyone wants to come out on tops. But that is beside the point really. Women can run races and come out on tops like you said. But most importantly any of us can overcome our struggles – like you – and go far, and that should be celebrated 🙂


  3. Excellent and evocative photography that embellishes a very important subject. It is so important to challenge stereotypes in order to broaden awareness and understanding. It also sounds like a fine balance that you must tread as an Asian Australian. Especially between being not too loud, but assertive enough to have your needs heard and get them met. Great post, Mabel.


    • Thanks, Amanda. I think all of us do need tread the line of not being too loud but assertive enough to state our opinion and let it be heard. For cultural minorities and women it might be more challenging as we are still constantly stereotyped one way or another. I think if many more of us were willing to just listen and try to see each other’s perspectives, then fairer opportunity would exist.

      Liked by 1 person

        • It would be a lovely world indeed if we all at least listened to each other – not necessarily agreeing and understanding each other, but just be a listening ear and treating each other with respect.


              • I learnt to be a listener because I was often ignored as a child and could empathize with thise who felt insignificant. Later I learnt more about listening through training in reflective and active listening skills. It would be a wonderful thing to add this kind of training the English curriculum in schools as it may lead to better communication. Some other people, like you Mabel, have a natural talent for valuing others and listening to their point of view, even if it is contrary to your viewpoint. That is something to be admired.


                • So sorry to hear you were ignored as a child but glad this experience made you stronger. These experiences can resonate with us for life. It would do school curriculum good if more active listening skills were taught and make for a more inclusive atmosphere. You are very kind, Amanda. Thank you. I don’t ever want anyone to feel left out.

                  Liked by 1 person

  4. Great discussion here. Stereotyping seems to be so easy for so many. Easier than getting to know each individual, and getting to know his/her personality and attributes instead of deciding beforehand what that person “must” be like. Yes, I’ve experienced lots of gender discrimination. I thought by this time it would be better, but in all honestly, I’m not sure that it is.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Stereotyping is indeed so easy and so many of us are ready to believe stereotypes. Sorry to hear you’ve experienced gender discrimination. If we could all just listen to each other and give each other a fair go, then the world would be a much happier place.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I could relate with this so well, having grown up in India. My parents were never the “boys over girls” type, but that subtle sentiment is woven so finely into the cultural fabric we live in, that it is really hard to escape it completely. Now living in America, I feel that kind of gender discrimination much less on the social front, but realize that it still exists here as well. Just goes to show that the patriarchal mentality is ingrained in the world in general, with some places just worse than others. It is interesting, for example, how you mentioned titles like “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Miss”, etc. It always bothered me that women had to change their names after marriage, they get a different title, but not the men — why do women have to be so *obviously* married? In India, married women are even expected to dress differently sometimes, or wear outward symbols of being “taken” (not unlike rings in the Western cultures I guess, just a lot more of it). It just seems like a patriarchal ownership thing, like here’s a woman who “belongs” to a man, like a piece of property almost, takes his name, etc. etc. As you can probably tell, I always rebelled against that kind of, even subtle, geder discriminatory attitudes. I was often chided a kid for this kind of stuff as well but I was never the kind to sit down and shut up – like you! 😀 – and always dreamed of living an independent life like any man might dream of.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Can tell you have a bit of a rebellious streak, very determined to finish your higher post-grad education when your circumstances almost didn’t allow you. It is interesting to hear how in India women are expected to come across as taken – while some might agree to it, a lot of women these days feel like they are so much more than someone’s ownership.

      So good to know that you are living the life that you want, and keep on living it 😀 Our life is our choice, and the more we make our choices and stand by them, the more others will see us for who we are.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. The art paired so well with th text!
    And love how the individuality was noted and actually a lot more still tossing in my thoughts – just thinking and letting a rich post settle in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For each of us being who we are can be hard. Hope you are proud of being Asian and gay and everything in between because you are you. Thank you so much for your nice words and for stopping by.


  7. Could not agree more with you, Mabel! We women are as smart, intelligent and strong as men are, and can do and achieve everything they can. I have always been very indipendent and never depended on any man. This I also want for my daugther, and will do everything for her to think this way as well. I did not take the name of my husband when I got married, and I am thinking the same way as you there as well. My last name is so much of my identity, and is important for me.
    You go girl! And thumbs up for this great post!


    • Absolutely great to hear that you feel that you are independent and hope to instill this in your daughter too. Any of us can do anything if we take time to learn what we need to learn to get what we want. Being independent, we learn how to create opportunities for ourselves and live our dreams 🙂


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