Taiwan’s Evolving Gender Norms: An Interview with Yu Wei-hsin

The Taiwan Gazette sits down with sociologist Yu Wei-hsin to discuss the changing landscape of courtship, marriage, and parenting in Taiwan.

By Jane Tien, Tiffany Kao, and Daigengna Duoer

Professor Yu Wei-hsin of the University of Maryland recently visited the University of Toronto’s Asian Institute to discuss issues surrounding social stratification and gender inequality in Taiwan. In this interview, we discuss the role of Taiwanese women in society, business, and politics.

 Taiwanese children playing. Photo credit Aikawa Ke

Taiwanese children playing. Photo credit Aikawa Ke


TG: What direction is gender equality headed in Taiwan?

Yu: In the US, the literature differentiates between gender egalitarianism versus gender essentialism. Gender egalitarianism has the belief that women are as capable as men and women should have as many opportunities in the public sphere as men do.

But gender essentialism says, despite women’s equal opportunity and equal ability, men and women are still essentially, fundamentally, inherently different. They have different preferences; they have different interests. So the argument is you could have a society where you have very strong gender egalitarianism; nonetheless, people still strongly believe in gender roles: the idea that women are better at taking care of children, or men are better at family-related stuff could still go strong.

My guess for Taiwan is that it’s kind of going in the direction of gender egalitarianism. If you ask people, “should you raise your daughter the same as your son? Should you give your daughter as much education as you give your son?” they’ll say “yes,” but whether people believe that mothers are better with children than fathers, that’s a different deal.

TG: What role do Taiwanese women play in business and government?

Yu: Taiwanese women have made more progress in the political arena than the private business area. In Taiwan, women in management positions do not occupy a very high tier. I find that interesting. If you look at the US, it’s the other way around. There are fewer female politicians, but there are a lot more female managers. That tells me that a lot of women’s participation in the political arena has not been translated into the business world.

In Taiwan, the likelihood for highly educated women to be single is very high. It’s not just women who have made it to the CEO position, it’s just high in general. I read a paper showing that for Taiwanese women in their 40s who have a university degree, one in four is not married. That is a very high number if you compare it to other countries.

TG: So why aren’t Taiwanese getting married?

Yu: That’s complicated. It could be that they have more resources, so they can opt-out of marriage. Because society has changed, and it’s becoming more acceptable for women not to be married, they don’t have to put up with men.

Or it could be they still want certain types of men. For Taiwanese women with higherr education, their pool of candidates becomes smaller. And very likely it could be that women with more education still want to marry men with an equivalent education.

Amongst highly educated men, there is a greater gap about what men and women’s gender role should be. More educated men can always marry down, while more educated women find it socially unacceptable. In terms of what I think of it, they might be better off that way. It is better to be single than to have a bad marriage.

TG: What impact has President Tsai Ing-wen had on society and gender equity?

Yu: There are more female presidents or equivalents from developing countries than in the developed world. Part of it has to do with people in different societies see their politicians somewhat differently: when jobs are bad, women are more likely to get them.

The other thing about developing countries in general—Taiwan is not really a developing country but it has that legacy—when people think about politicians, their main concern is corruption. There is a tendency to elect women because women are seen as less corrupt; they are less likely to take money and be tied to “old boy” networks. In this context, Tsai Ing-wen emerged.

In general, I think Tsai’s presidency is a positive thing, because it encourages the political participation of women. There is a lot of research showing that when you see one, you more likely want to be one. But whether having a female president means Taiwanese society has reached a certain landmark? I’m more skeptical.

TG: How do you view the rising cost of child care in Taiwan, and the country’s low fertility rate? What does this mean for Taiwan’s future?

Yu: I tend to be skeptical about financial problems explaining low fertility. Parents always talk about financial problems, the cost of raising a child is a concern, and I’m not saying raising a child is not expensive, but I wonder how much that really explains the situation.

First of all, if you look at who’s having fewer children, it’s usually people with more money and more education. So people with money who can afford more are actually having fewer children.

And then if you look at the cost, raising a child in the US is a lot higher than raising a child in Taiwan. And yet, people in the US are having children like crazy; fertility is fairly high, even among the middle class, so it’s not just because the lower class is having a lot more children.

I think what might be happening is this: Taiwanese get married very late. Delayed marriage leads to low fertility among married couples because if one gets married rather late, you’re facing infertility and other difficulties to have multiple children.

The cost of childcare could make people want to delay, makes the interval wider. It’s not that they don’t want to have another child, but the cost of having children makes them want to have another child later and then they waited too long, then it becomes impossible. That’s a possible reason.

And second, traditionally in Taiwan, children will support parents as they get old, so the inter-generational transfer often moves from children to parents. But societies are changing, and children no longer support their parents. It becomes that raising children becomes pure consumption, it’s no longer an investment anymore. As it becomes pure consumption, parents become more cost-conscious. I’m not saying that parents are thinking about this very consciously but it might be that we start hearing more about the cost of raising children because parents no longer see it as an investment.

I personally suspect that Taiwan is going through this transitional period, where they haven’t started to see raising a child as part of their personal development, or as an important experience in life, or as part of their identity.

For example, the literature in US talks about women who don’t have the prospect of marrying because they can’t find men who they think are worth marrying, but they still want to have children because they see having a child as very important to their womanhood. It’s a part of their identity. If you don’t have such an experience, you can’t be a woman.

I don’t think that exists in Taiwan yet. But when children are no longer an investment and individuals don’t see raising a child as an important experience in life, then there is really very little reason to have a child. And because they’re not eager to have a child, that could make them less eager to seek a marriage partner. It could be the other way around, too. It could be that people simply cannot find marriage partners, then they end up not having children.

Third, people in Taiwan are not having children without marriage. In a lot of Western countries, women can do all sorts of things, like cohabiting, or be a single mom, or have children without marriage. That’s still not quite socially acceptable in Taiwan. Often times, if two people live together and they get pregnant, they’ll get married. So I think part of the low fertility rate has to do with low social acceptance and low willingness to have a child without marriage.

Taiwan Gazette