Gender Discrimination In Asian Cultures: Women Are More Than Passive, Stubborn Stereotypes

Gender and racial discrimination is something many women from Asian backgrounds face. It’s something we reluctantly and relentlessly put up with on professional and personal fronts all around the world.

Inequality. Favouritism. Sexism. Misrepresentation. These are the challenges women commonly face growing up Asian or living in a society where typical Asian cultural values, patriarchal norms and Confucian ideals are upheld.

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…

As I wrote in this post Why Males Are the Favoured Sex In Asian Cultures, in many Asian cultures often women are seen as either passive or overbearing, and all round less capable than those who are born or endowed with certain contrasting biological traits. In many Asian cultures, ‘boys over girls’ or ‘man over woman’ is often how the mentality goes at home, at work, in social settings and countless situations in between.

Throughout my childhood in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, this sentiment surrounded me in both subtle and non-subtle ways. As a kid I never agreed with this train of thought. At times I rebelled against it. These days I still don’t agree with it.

Being a woman of Asian background doesn’t mean one can’t have an opinion or achieve goals or do what one wants to do. A body with a mind and all its physical, emotional and mental attributes is a person who is their own individual. This is probably what many Asian women believe in; we believe in ourselves in the face of marginalisation.

Choosing and being proud of individuality

Traditionally a quiet Asian woman is seen as someone with no backbone, no voice and more of a submissive follower than a leader. There is the long-held perception within Asian cultures that it’s more honourable to be male rather than female. A kind of patriarchal responsibility comes with being an Asian male: the expectation to look after elders and carry on the family name and bloodline and this is a source of pride. On the other hand, traditional Asian families seek to marry women off – women are given away and seen as ‘not a long-term investment’ so to speak.

Given the freedom of choice to stand their own ground, more and more women of Asian background are constructing a sense of ownership around their name and who they stand for. When the 1950 Marriage Law banning arranged marriages was passed in China under the leadership of Mao Zedong, women rushed to register their names to have claims on inheritance. In many Confucian societies and places such as China and Malaysia, Chinese women (ironically) do not change their last name (with the exception of Japan where married women are required by law to take their partner’s surname). They retain their last names but might be informally known by their partner’s last name. Then there is rù zhuì (入赘) as Jocelyn Eikenburg of Speaking of China writes about, which relates to the instances where Chinese men ‘marry’ into a more-well-off woman’s family for a more practical future and perhaps take on a woman’s last name.

Taking on another name never appealed to me. Don’t ever intend on changing my name. To me, my own name speaks of who I am, what I’ve attained and carry on my shoulders today: an education, the lessons learnt from my ancestors, the places that I’ve worked, the money I’ve earned which is rightfully mine. My name speaks of my history, my present stories and experiences of being Chinese Australian. Every name is part of a generation, every name is a generation and a culture in itself, every name is a someone.

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.

Consequently, women of Asian background are commonly stereotyped not just as submissive but having limited roles. The majority of Confucius’ five hierarchical relationships is centred on the family with an emphasis on women being compliant wives and mothers. Having biological children is regarded as sort of a currency – status and pride – in Chinese culture. On an Asian woman’s part, natural procreation is exclusive and sacred as it’s a sure means to preserve one’s heritage and name by blood.

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

With careful planning, thought, engaged action and hard work, there’s no limit to what any woman regardless of race can achieve. The more one works hard at something, the more opportunities one creates for themselves and the more one gets noticed. Since 2006 in China female registration at universities surpassed that of males and employment to population ratio of women stands at 73%.

Moreover, these educated women are increasingly choosing career over family today in the post-One Child Policy era – and they are increasingly termed ‘leftover women’ or shèng nǚ (剩女). To many of these women, shèng nǚ is synonymous with victory and marriage is companionship that one can get by simply 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 stresses adoption is always an option.

Each of us has the power to make a difference.

Each of us has the power to make a difference.

‘Let your (younger) brother go first’ and ‘Look after Mabel’ was what my folks constantly said about my brother, to me. They also encouraged me to get a suitor the moment I finished university, preferably a Chinese-Malaysian guy. No comment about my love life on the internet. But I will say that despite constantly being told to sit down, shut up and play safe as a kid, I dreamt of being an independent, self-sustainable persona who climbed the corporate ladder wearing freshly pressed suits, confident at my job and doing it well while pursuing a creative passion on the side. After climbing out of phases of unemployment and writer’s block, today all that is a reality: affording my own way through life working a day job and outside of that writing a book which I have no idea when will get done.

It’s a scientific fact that different sexes experience different physical and emotional spectrums. In many parts of Asia, those with an uterus and who have periods are literally regarded as the weaker sex. Talk of periods and the side effects of periods here are generally taboo, regarded as unclean and unholy in the eyes of certain religions. Talk of or showing signs of distress is also regarded as a sign of weakness in Asian cultures priding on excellence in achievement.

Despite one’s limitations and the challenges faced physically and emotionally, there’s no reason why one can’t soldier on, put on a poker face and get the job done. 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 and it’s usually not paralysing. Some have argued period leave is not necessary and it can lead to more inequality in the workplace, and not every woman gets a period. When China’s swimmer Fu Yuanhui admitted she swam on her period during the Olympics and felt tired because of it, Chinese media focused on reporting how a woman could swim – and she finished fourth in her race.

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

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

Honestly I’ve never felt awkward about talking about periods or acknowledging feeling flatter than a pancake when it comes. Never taken a day off because of it and just keep going about my day popping a stack pills (maybe I’m one of the lucky ones). Every man and woman and any gender in between will sweat, sneeze and get sick and feel not the best at some point. All of us have countless natural bodily functions, and periods are natural bodily functions, no exception.

*  *  *

Labels don’t define us

Defining gender is complex. Gender isn’t confined to a box and commonly thought of as socially constructed roles and behaviours. Not all of us identify with being man or woman and might identify as genderqueer or ‘in-between’ third gender instead – which is okay since each of us are entitled to feel how we want to feel and love who we want to love. Traditionally gender fluidity has been frowned upon and unspoken in Asian cultures. However these days more of those of Asian descent identify with being queer and negotiate fluid identities within supportive LGBTQIA+ communities and queer getaways. Similarly, there are different waves of feminism and different forms of sexism – so talking about gender discrimination is undoubtedly a complicated and sensitive discussion.

Equality is a hard fight. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, equality is the state of quantities being equal; more broadly in the context of human rights, equality is about opportunity, freedom, empowerment and respect for all. As competition, the chase for wealth and desire to get ahead dominate society today, often the status quo prevails in favour of particular classes, benchmarks and outcomes. Christy Birmingham of When Women Inspire writes to be gender inclusive means to open for all, any gender, anywhere. In other words, no two people can truly be equal across different aspects but there is the possibility for equal opportunity for each of us.

Gender specific labels arguably perpetuate the power plays between the different genders. Long-standing honorifics such as ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’ and the terms ‘boyfriend’, ‘girlfriend’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ often have patriarchal undertones and are synonyms for ownership over another. Today many modern relationships see being a couple as two people having mutual respect for each other’s wants and individuality. Similarly, in Chinese culture a young woman is commonly addressed as xiăo jiĕ (小姐) and a married woman/head-wife tài tài (太太). That said, traditional labelling – which includes the words ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ – has its place in today’s society: it reflects how different each of us are, the ideals some of us believe in and is a means to distinguish ourselves, traits and capabilities from each other.

In each of us there is a superhero.

In each of us there is a superhero.

To me, we are more than the salutations affixed to us. No one is better than the person next to us, no better in terms of personality and we can give and all learn from each other. It’s probably why I don’t like being addressed by ‘Miss’ or ‘girlfriend’ or ‘little girl’, much preferring to be called by my name in the first instance. In the context of relationships with two or more people, the words ‘partner’ and ‘friend’ sit fairly well with me as each word tends to recognise distinct individuals as whom they are on a level playing field. Personally I like being a part of something because of who I am, what I do and what I can offer to someone and the bigger picture.

In recent times, ‘Tiger mum’ is a common phrase used to describe Asian mothers with strict parenting styles, demanding their children focus rigorously on academic studies. As debated in the media, ‘Tiger mum’ conjures up the image that an Asian woman who isn’t all passive has the ugly potential be a demanding disciplinarian, hot-headed authoritarian. On the other hand in traditional Chinese families, the male breadwinner in the family is usually unwaveringly regarded as right in most instances.

I’ve always had a bit of a headstrong side to my personality. My folks have called me stubborn more times than I can count: I was called stubborn when I didn’t want to play with my Barbie dolls but with my brother’s Hot Wheels toy cars. Called stubborn when I refused to wear a dress to a family wedding. Called ‘no brain’ when I insisted on studying Arts at university. Each time I felt not only scorned but also in the wrong. Meanwhile my brother never seemed to get yelled at anything he did. Ironically, those who call others stubborn are in fact being stubborn themselves – and no one really comes out on top.

Speaking up is harder than it is

The capacity to speak up and actively engage in who we want to be differs across the world. Different beliefs are entrenched in different places. Educational and personal development opportunities differ in different places. Hence, the scale of human rights varies across 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. As the abortion of female babies surged by 170% between 2001 and 2011 in India, maternity harassment complaints are on the rise in Japan.

Speaking up is a right for all of us.

Speaking up is a right for all of us.

Even in privileged first world countries such as Australia where there are vocal gender equality campaigns, subtler casual bias against women is prevalent. According to the Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling report from Diversity Council Australia which surveyed over 230 culturally diverse businesswomen, Muslim women admitted corporate workplaces in Australia commonly see those wearing the hijab as subjugated and not capable to lead. Only one in ten respondents felt their leadership traits were recognised at work. In addition, Thai women who moved to Australia for a better life have silently suffered domestic violence and rape at the hands of their white Australian partners.

Therefore it has always been, and still is, a challenge for Asian women to speak up let alone make their mark in Australia. As Malaysian-born, ex-ASEX-200 entity CEO Ming Long said, in Australia Asian employees who don’t conform to being quiet are often labelled as aggressive and thus disliked. She also mentioned that employers prefer hiring someone on the basis of cultural fit and ‘merit is a trap. It really depends on who’s defining it.’

While it’s encouraging to see more Asian women speaking up, there is also nothing wrong with keeping a quiet demeanour and actually being comfortable with it. After all, the model minority myth is still prevalent like it has been for decades, there are still millions of quiet and studious Asian students all around the world and patriarchal value systems where woman are happy to play obedient housewives show no signs of going away in many parts of Asia. Just like how not all woman want to have children, not all women are comfortable with making their mark by speaking out loud or verbally but prefer flying under the radar and being quiet achievers. And being a quiet Asian woman and really any other woman – one who might actually dress looking like a China doll because of a love for that look – doesn’t mean one doesn’t have an opinion and doesn’t want to express 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.

Describing myself, I see myself as a woman of Chinese background living in Australia. Someone with a foreign-sounding accent, someone who likes to get things done while standing outside of the spotlight and a proud introvert. The way I prefer to articulate my thoughts isn’t in a space where everyone is debating over each other. The way I prefer to share my strengths isn’t in front of a big crowd. Rather an intimate arena where everyone is given a chance to say something but not required to do so or where ideas are articulated in written form is an arena where I feel like I can not only share but also somewhat feel a part of something.

Women come in all shapes and sizes and most certainly in all shades of colour and character. Some of us fit the stereotype, some of us don’t. And some of us might fit both stereotype and non-stereotype. Each to their own. 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.’

Share. Stand together. Understand each other.

Share. Stand together. Understand each other.

Some might read this post thinking I dislike aspects of being Chinese and a Chinese woman at that, and dislike what Chinese culture is. Yes and no. While I like listening and being quiet and feel that’s important, to me sharing opinions is equally important when it comes to getting along and understanding each other. While I like being independent and standing on my own two feet, to me there is also much to learn from working, sharing and standing together with another and opening up to them. At the end of the day, each of us women is our own person with our own persona.

At the end of the day, it’s a right for each of us women to not be judged so quickly. Most importantly it’s a right for all women to have the opportunity to make the choices we want to make, and ultimately be who we want to be.

Have you encountered or seen gender discrimination?

225 thoughts on “Gender Discrimination In Asian Cultures: Women Are More Than Passive, Stubborn Stereotypes

  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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