Progress Toward Gender Equality – but is it Enough?

Featuring a subplot focused on sexual harassment, the Netflix show Wave Makers made waves in Taiwan's #MeToo movement.

A domestic #MeToo movement has propelled legal reforms and heightened awareness in Taiwan’s public and private sectors around sexual harassment and gender equality.  

Taiwan has seen an unprecedented number of sexual harassment allegations this year, marking the first significant wave of a domestic #MeToo movement. Triggered by a sexual harassment storyline in the Taiwanese political Netflix drama Wave Makers, people across the island have come forward to describe experiences of harassment by alleged perpetrators, from university professors and doctors to baseball umpires.  

Accusations have also been leveled at senior politicians across the political spectrum. One of these incidents led to the resignation of ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Deputy Secretary General Hsu Chia-tien and the withdrawal of former Student Sunflower Movement activist Lin Fei-fan from the legislative race. Hsu and Lin resigned in June after failing to properly handle a sexual harassment complaint within Taiwan’s ruling party.  

Pressure from the #MeToo movement compelled the Legislative Yuan to pass amendments to three bills relating to sexual harassment in a matter of months. The revisions to the Act of Gender Equality in Employment, which passed on July 31, will have the most extensive impact on companies.  

DPP lawmaker Fan Yun explains that while employers previously did have a legal obligation to investigate sexual harassment allegations within their company, they were allowed to do so even if they were the ones accused. If the sexual harasser is the victim’s employer, the victim can now file an administrative appeal with the authorities, usually a local government’s labor bureau. (The usual judicial route is still available as well.)  

In addition, if victims are dissatisfied with the results of a company’s probe of their sexual harassment case, they are also allowed to file a complaint with their local government, Fan says.  

Protesters hold a banner that reads: “We don’t want to just leave it at this.”

Taiwanese employers are now generally expected to be more conscious of sexual harassment and have heightened responsibilities in managing it. Christine Chen, a partner at the Taipei-based law firm Winkler Partners, says that once employers become aware of any instance of sexual harassment in their workplace, they are now obligated to launch an investigation even if no formal complaint has been filed by a victim. They must also make necessary adjustments in the employee’s job responsibilities or workplace.  

“They are expected to support the victim in filing a complaint, offering guidance on counseling services, or facilitating access to medical services in accordance with the victim’s preferences,” Chen explained by email. Employers are also required to offer similar support if they receive a formal sexual harassment complaint from an employee.  

When serious workplace sexual harassment allegations are made against a person in a position of authority, the company must now put the accused on leave or move them into another role during the investigation. If the allegations are proven to be true and reach a defined severity threshold, the company is required to terminate the offender’s work contract within 30 days of concluding the investigation.  

In addition, the Executive Yuan’s Department of Gender Equality (DGE)informed TOPICS that employers are now required to notify their local city or county labor department if someone in their company has filed a sexual harassment complaint and it is determined to be a genuine case. They must also notify authorities about the results of the subsequent investigation. 

In other changes, companies with between 10 and 29 employees are required to set up sexual harassment prevention measures and disciplinary procedures, a rule previously applicable only to companies with 30 or more personnel. Moreover, incidents occurring outside work hours and outside of the office are now also covered by the Act of Gender Equality in Employment, notes Lin Chin-chun, a senior executive officer with the DGE.  

This shift makes sense for the modern work environment. According to a DGE report, the largest portion (22.7%) of “confirmed” sexual harassment com-plaints in 2021 occurred in virtual locations, such as on social media or through the use of communications software.  

The new legislation also covers sexual harassment incidents involving employees from different business units. In addition, the amended law imposes stiffer penalties. Companies that are aware of sexual harassment complaints and fail to take corrective actions are subject to fines of between NT$20,000 and NT$1 million. As the changes will require workforce and budgetary adjustments by both companies and local governments, portions of the amendments won’t take effect until March next year.  

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are expected to have the most difficulty managing the changes. SMEs employ around 9.2 million people, or more than 80% of the workforce, and constitute over 98% of all companies in Taiwan.  

Michelle Kuo, head of the Civic Dialogue Department at the Garden of Hope Foundation, notes that her organization is sometimes invited to give presentations on sexual harassment. Previously, interest in these types of talks was relatively low, but between May and July her organization was inundated with requests. “The government needs to coach SMEs, train SMEs, and teach them where resources are,” Kuo says.  

The challenge for SMEs in handling sexual harassment cases is due not only to a lack of information and awareness but also to the small size of their operations, which often fosters intense interpersonal relationships and blurry boundaries between staff members.  

The DPP’s Fan notes that in the past, central government officials were often reluctant to strictly enforce existing feminist laws as they apply to SMEs out of recognition of these companies’ economic contributions. For their part, political parties tended to avoid the issue because business owners “are sources of political support – the main sources of donations,” Fan says.   

The Tsai administration has often used gender equality as part of its soft power efforts at home and abroad.

Inclusivity matters 

Under the previous Act of Gender Equality in Employment, 89.9% of complaints filed in 2021 were from women and included allegations of both sexual discrimination and employer violations of sexual harassment prevention obligations. While women at all levels may experience sexual harassment, several studies have shown that increasing the number of women in the workforce, particularly in leadership positions, decreases sexual harassment overall. 

Taiwan’s labor force participation rate in 2021 for women aged 15 and above was 51.5%. That level is 15.4 percentage points below that of men and lower than that of Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. The highest labor participation rate for women in Taiwan – 89.9% – was found among those in the 25-29 age bracket. Hourly earnings for women in Taiwan were 15.8% lower than for men in 2021, slightly better than the 16.9% gender pay gap in the United States.  

Although more women are heading SMEs than in the past, they are still under-represented in this area. Last year 37.3% of SMEs were headed by women, an increase of nearly 30% compared with a decade ago, according to the GEC. Female leadership is most prominent in the services sector. 

The proportion of female directors on company boards has also increased slightly over the past few years, though primarily for larger corporations. Even for publicly listed companies, last year only 15.6% of all directors were women.  

The Financial Supervisory Commission announced in March that companies planning initial public offerings (IPOs) must have at least one woman on their board of directors. By 2025, the requirement will be one-third, and listed firms failing to meet this requirement must explain why and present improvement plans, the DGE’s Lin says.  

Generally, larger companies in Taiwan, particularly in certain industries, tend to be more gender inclusive. Lin says that companies in the financial sector tend to take the issue of gender equality the most seriously, while the worst examples tend to be companies in low-end manufacturing, logistics and storage, water supply, and pollution treatment.  

Multinationals, many of which have established formal policies on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA), typically adhere to those principles and work to create a workplace free from harassment and discrimination, says Winkler Partners’ Chen.  

Another observation in the DGE report is the gender segregation in Taiwan’s higher education system, with more men studying fields like science and engineering and more women in the humanities. In 2019, 70.4% of graduating education majors were female, as well as 69.7% of the graduates in the arts and humanities. Only 18.9% of students in fields related to engineering and manufacturing were women.  

Women continue to be under-represented in many professions, according to the GEC report. More than two times as many men as women are doctors of Western medicine, while less than a third of dentists are women. As of June 2021, only 6.3% of practicing engineers with a Taiwanese professional engineer’s license were women. Overall, more than 80% of R&D and managerial positions in Taiwan’s science parks were held by men, while women tended to dominate administrative positions.  

Cindy Chen, senior vice president of human-resources company Adecco East Asia, is optimistic that conditions are improving. Over the last 30 years, she has seen Taiwanese companies taking gender equality more seriously. Chen notes that given the talent shortage caused by Taiwan’s low birthrate, the need to attract employees will motivate companies to be more gender inclusive. “I think society is moving in the right direction,’ she says.  

Taiwan offers various maternity and paternity benefits that, while substantial, are a far cry from those in some Western countries. “Compared to countries such as Australia and Sweden, Taiwan still has room for future improvement in the balance between work and family,” says the DPP’s Fan.  

Winkler’s Chen notes that Taiwanese mothers can enjoy eight weeks of paid maternity leave in addition to seven leave days for prenatal checkups with full pay. Fathers are also entitled to a seven-day paternity leave with full pay, which can be used to accompany their partner for prenatal checkups.  

Furthermore, after being employed for a minimum of six months, an employee can apply for unpaid parental leave to take care of toddlers up to the age of three, with a maximum duration of two years per child. Chen notes if the employee is simultaneously caring for at least two children under three years old, the maximum parental leave should be two years based on the youngest child’s age. The Taiwanese government offers subsidies equivalent to 80% of the parent’s insured wages for up to six months of parental leave.  

Fan and Adecco’s Cindy Chen say that despite the generous maternity leave policies, some women feel apprehension about taking so much leave, fearing that their employer will get impatient and replace them with someone else. Kuo of the Garden of Hope estimates that about 20% of those taking longer parental leave are men.  

“We see that a company’s capacity to provide support is largely influenced by its available resources, statutorily or in practice, regardless of whether it is a multinational or a local company,” says Winkler’s  Chen. For example, breastfeeding rooms and childcare facilities are required to be made available in companies with more than 100 employees.  

“SMEs generally follow the law, but few would offer additional benefits beyond the law,” she says. “In contrast, multinational corporations are generally larger and tend to offer more competitive childcare support packages as part of their efforts to retain top talent,” while “larger Taiwanese businesses also excel in providing comprehensive support to their employees, for example, higher parental allowances and more paid parental leave.”