Taipei (AFP) – Soft-spoken and naturally shy, Taiwan’s first female leader President Tsai Ing-wen was not an obvious trailblazer.
But after taking over a party once seen as chauvinist and defying sexist critics, she calls on other women to shrug off self-doubt and be “brave” in the #MeToo era.
In an exclusive interview with AFP, Tsai, 61, described the difficulties she faced in countering “traditional” attitudes among voters and party members who did not believe she was up to the job because of her gender.
“This is, in a way, a very traditional society,” Tsai told AFP at her residence in central Taipei, two years after her election as president.
“People think that women tend to be weaker, tend to be less resilient, and people usually have this question of whether a woman can exercise leadership like a man.”
The former law professor worked as an international trade negotiator before taking on her first major public role in 2000, when she headed the body that deals with Taiwan’s relations with Beijing.
It was not until 2008 that she entered frontline party politics, becoming chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its first female leader.
It was not an easy fit, she says.
Tsai has described herself as introverted as a child and never liked spending time with large groups — a challenge when she first started campaigning as party leader.
“I was not speaking loud enough, and I was not speaking with big body language and I was not able to communicate with the public in a language they were familiar with,” she admits.
When she took on the leadership, the DPP was in disarray after losing the presidency and was perceived as “chauvinist”, she adds.
“I think at the beginning (party supporters) had doubts whether this woman would be able to lead them.”
But Tsai says she countered the doubters and her own lack of experience by making a determined push to meet voters and re-learn Taiwanese, spoken in the DPP’s southern heartland, rather than Taiwan’s dominant Mandarin Chinese.
Nowadays she says she likes to interact with people “to a certain extent”.
“When you look into the eyes of people after this interaction they look more confident and feel more secure and that is a time that I feel that this is all worthwhile.”
– Changing attitudes –
Tsai, who has faced sexist comments from some critics attacking her status as a single childless woman, praises the global #MeToo movement highlighting gender discrimination and harassment.
“I think #MeToo is good to tell the male side that there are things that are important to females and therefore you have to be more aware of these issues,” she says.
“The same applies to women — they should be told they should be brave and they should not be shy. They should come out and speak what they want to say.”
In Taiwan’s parliament, 38 percent of legislators are women, a higher percentage than in China, Japan and South Korea as well as the United States and Britain.
Tsai says the number of women serving in Taiwan’s military is also growing.
But despite changing attitudes, Tsai, like other women in power, faces regular questions about her wardrobe, particularly about why she never wears a skirt — favouring dark-coloured trouser suits instead.
She says it does not bother her, although she believes appearance plays a part in political life across gender lines.
“The sense is that you have to look pleasant in front of the public. You have to appear to be very confident in yourself.”
Tsai earned a reputation as a “cat lady” during her 2016 presidential campaign, after her pets Hsiang-hsiang and Ah Tsai featured on her social media streams.
Since then she has adopted three retired guide dogs which have also appeared on the presidential Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Tsai says she grew up surrounded by animals and finds their presence calming.
“Sometimes, if you are thinking about things or are under a lot of pressure, you will just stand there and look at those cats,” she says.