Testament to the high level of recognition and empowerment achieved by Filipino women through the decades is the recent inclusion of two Filipino women among international publication Time Magazine’s “100 Women of the Year” special issue this March, observed here and elsewhere as “women’s month.”

And the two women are indeed notable: the late former president Cory Aquino, and news website Rappler head Maria Ressa. Aquino was named “Person of the Year” in 1986, for “defending democracy at the height of the Marcos regime,” and then stepping into the presidency after the Marcoses fled in exile. Ressa was one of four journalists cited in 2018, dubbed “The Guardians,” for their staunch defense of freedom of the press and the people’s right to information.

But this isn’t the lone development that makes this year’s observance of Women’s Month special. Even more noteworthy is the finding that the Philippines ranked first among 32 countries surveyed in having the biggest number of women holding top leadership roles. Grant Thornton International’s 2020 Women in Business Report found that 43 percent of Filipino women executives are holding senior management positions. The country was followed in the rankings by South Africa, Poland, and Mexico. The other countries studied in the report were Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam.

Note that the Philippines outranked even countries widely perceived as progressive and equitable, including Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Local data from the report, says a news item, indicate that the top three roles of Filipino women executives are chief finance officer at 38 percent, human resources director at 36 percent, and chief operating officer at 23 percent.

Marivic Españo, the chair and chief executive officer of P&A Grant Thornton, the local affiliate of Grant Thornton International Ltd., observed that “the most significant roles in business operations—strategy, finance and people—are being held by women.”

The news about the high ranking of women executives in the country certainly deserves to be highlighted and celebrated. But it is only one corner of a bigger picture: the overall welfare and status of Filipino women and girls, and not just the managerial, power-suited class.

And here we bump our heads against harsh reality. Overall, Filipino women constitute the real “poorest of the poor,” poorly paid (if paid at all), less nourished and cared for, subject to violence and sexual exploitation even from a young age even at the hands of family members, and expected to sacrifice their own health, welfare and dreams for those of their parents, husbands, partners, and children. Indeed, the only aspect of life where women and girls outdo their male counterparts in the country is education, with parents more willing to invest in the education of their daughters as manifested in the higher enrollment rates for them; and resulting in greater numbers of female students at the tertiary level. But after graduation from college, the labor market remains hostile to women, thus explaining the exodus abroad of increasing numbers of women, even college graduates, to take up domestic or low-paying jobs.

Indeed, the women executives covered by the Grant Thornton report, and the exalted status granted to the likes of Cory Aquino and Maria Ressa, may unwittingly and ironically even end up as a big obstacle to addressing the overall plight of ordinary Filipino women, especially in the age of the misogynist Duterte administration. The accomplishments of women executives, and the limelight thrown on women in diverse fields like academe, politics, law, medicine, fashion, and entertainment, may serve as blinders on everyone else who has the power to change the fundamental status of the majority of women.

To be fair, women in the professions have for many years become aware of the fundamental injustice that underlies the differences not just in gender entitlements, but, more important, in the structures of our society. Imagine how things might change, and change swiftly, if empowered women employed all their entitlements to changing the lowly status of all the women and girls around them.

As published in Philippine Daily Inquirer, dated 07 March 2020