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Thailand’s political glass ceiling is reinforced by notions of what’s appropriate, what’s feasible and what are traditional roles in society, according to three women politicians.

While the male-dominant culture is still to blame for the low representation of Thai women in politics, novice politicians from three major parties took turns describing the underlying factors that bar or discourage women from entering politics at a Wednesday evening discussion hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.

“It’s not easy to get women into politics … [and] to get people to vote for female candidates because [they] think politics is not a place for women,” said Democrat MP candidate and party spokeswoman Siripa Intavichein.

Only 5 percent of the Thai parliament – 13 seats – belong to women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, placing the kingdom 184th out of 194 nations – the lowest in ASEAN – for female representation.

It’s a vast disparity compared to the business world when it comes to female leadership.

Over 40 percent of CEO or CFO positions in Thailand are held by women, according to a 2018 Grant Thornton’s business report. The global average of women in management positions last year was 24 percent.

Tidarat Yingcharoen of the Pheu Thai Party, which gave Thailand its first female prime minister in 2011, thinks financial stability has a major effect on the proportion of women and younger people in Thai politics.

“People don’t want to be in politics because they don’t have money,” she said. “In order to join politics you must be financially stable.”

Tidarat said that, in the current environment, only people who come from rich families or have worked a long time and earned significant savings can afford to join politics.

Siripa, the Democrat, shared a similar opinion. She also thinks women in general are more encouraged by their families to enter business, as it’s seen as a more secure and successful career, while politics is unstable and thought of as “a waste of money and a waste of time.”

Tidarat pointed out that, while there are a high number of women in business management, the majority of ownership still belongs to men, which emphasizes the importance of making women more stable financially and therefore more confident about taking leadership roles to enter politics.

The job is also perceived as “dirty,” which discourages women even more, Tidarat said.

The media treatment of female politicians also doesn’t help, Siripa said. While she sees plenty of stories about female politicians in news, most articles “mainly talk about their beauty rather than their abilities and values.”

On how to encourage more women to enter politics, Pannika Wanich of the Future Forward Party said people need to change perceptions about the role of women not being seen as just a subordinate or the “pretty faces.” She however doesn’t think quotas should be enforced to increase that proportion as they are discriminatory.

“Quotas suggest that women are [an] inferior species,” she said.

Siripa, whose party has adopted quotas for women, said that although she thinks representatives should be elected “based on their abilities, not gender” her former disagreement with a quota-based system has changed since entering politics.

“I realized that the majority of people there are men, and when they vote, they vote for their male friends. I think quotas are important to a certain extent to increase a number of women in politics,” she said.

Tidarat thinks quotas are like the “chicken and egg debate.” While they are acceptable to her, what she thinks is equally important is educational empowerment and training aimed at increasing the confidence and leadership skills of women, including a change in how women are portrayed and perceived by society, to create an environment that truly enables them to be in politics.

“We need to change the culture both inside and outside the parliament,” she said. “Tell them it’s okay to join politics. If you don’t change perceptions about politics and [women’s place] … it’s going to be very difficult.”

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