The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: Surveying gender equality in Thailand

Taking stock of Thailand's history and progress on the occasion of International Women's Day and Women's month!
Panom Thongprayoon




In 1865, William Ross Wallace, an American poet, praised the role of women and mothers in his famous poem. Its title and most well-known stanza, “And the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” was translated into Thai several decades later and is popularly quoted until today.

A mother talking on the phone with a child coloring a book next to her

Indeed, the importance of Siamese women beyond motherhood has been accepted in family and social structures for centuries. This is reflected in the traits of some traditions still practiced today and even in the Thai language. For instance, many families still expect newly married men to move to live with his wife’s family and prove his worth before the couple can move out to live on their own. The word “mae” meaning “mother,” is used as a prefix to indicate power and respect, e.g., “Mae Thap,” when directly translated means, “mother of an army,” refers to a position leading an army, similar to a general who commands an army region. Influence from foreign cultures later on, however, set social conditions that had not been favourable for Thai women to exercise their full potential. Nevertheless, Siamese women have always been a supportive force and held moral leadership behind the success of men.

Over 150 years later, it seems to be the norm for women to assume even more diverse roles and to have careers previously dominated by men. Army generals, pilots, prime ministers, soccer referees and CEOs of automobile companies are some examples. Women have come a long way from the days when their choices were rigidly defined and confined by social norms and mindset. With changes of time, the division of labour between genders no longer holds and women have been able to dump their branded role as “mother and housewife only” in history.

In this sense, Thailand’s progress in gender equality has been a naturally smooth process, and therefore recognised internationally. The “Women in Business 2020 Report” by Grant Thornton Services Ltd., 2020, found that the Thai private sector has more women in senior positions than both the Asia-Pacific and the global average. Among mid-market companies, women hold 32% of senior positions, which is higher than the global average of 27% and the Asia-Pacific average of 26%. The number of Thai businesses without women executives is also lower than the regional and global average. 

The first female Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The first female permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In diplomatic circles, female diplomats have proven to be as skillful and tactful as their male counterparts. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand for instance, currently has 522 female officers or 66% of officers in the service, as of March 2021. Of this number, 61 or 36% of ambassadors and executives are female, which reflects an upward trend of gender equality. Over the past several years, it had been led by Busaya Mathelin, its first female permanent secretary, the highest ranking career officer. This year, it will field another leading executive, Vilawan Mangklatanakul, Director-General of the Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs, as Thailand’s and ASEAN’s first female candidate for the International Law Commission (ILC) for the term 2023 – 2027.

Such progress underlines the evolving trend that success is decided by one’s talent and merit over gender. A celebration of diversity is in the making, although many women in the region and beyond remain vulnerable to implicit prejudice and discrimination. It was reported that during the COVID-19 pandemic, more women have lost their jobs and have been kept busy at home than men. That is why UN Women chose “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” as the theme for International Women’s Day in 2021. 

But the COVID-19 crisis has opened up an opportunity for Thai women to shine as leaders and contribute to society. For instance, as village health volunteers, they were instrumental in preventing the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 by tirelessly carrying out prevention campaigns, and collecting data for contact tracing. They delivered drugs right to the homes of people with chronic diseases to prevent them from the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. The World Health Organisation even cited this model as an example for other countries to follow in fighting against the disease. Furthermore, Thai female scientists and researchers worked on developing COVID-19 diagnostic tests and vaccine, microbial filtration applications, and DDC-CARE, a system for monitoring people who may be infected with COVID-19. 

A nurse helping and assisting a patient in a wheelchair
Credit: WHO/พลอย พุฒเพ็ง

Gender equality and women empowerment form Goal #5 of the UN SDGs. This should go beyond empowering any particular group, and strive towards eradicating gender barriers and creating a level playing field for all. For Thailand, education and legal measures have been instrumental in advancing gender equality since the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985, and the endorsement of the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995. Domestically, Thailand has strengthened relevant legislation and policies to promote equal economic rights and opportunities, such as the Gender Equality Act, the Social Security Act, and the amendment to the Labour Protection Act to ensure equal pay for equal work. 

A great symbolic feat is the Person Name Act B.E. 2548 (2005) and Female Title Act B.E. 2551 (2008) which gives married Thai women the choice of using either “Miss” or “Mrs.” as their title, and to retain their maiden name. Previously, once they got married, women would be obligated to change their titles to “Mrs.” and adopt the surnames of their husbands. The practice was criticised as discriminatory since men could keep their “Mr.” titles and surname regardless of marital status. 

In terms of status, roles or achievements, the difference between men and women has progressively receded. To successfully prove oneself, the prevailing determinants are determination, hard work and meritocracy rather than gender. The notion that women can only take lead in household chores and raising their children is a thing of the past. On the contrary, more men are viewing these tasks as shared responsibilities, and modern, progressive dads are happily ready or even proud to assist their well-accomplished wives. 

What’s next then, for gender equality? We have moved from a gender insensitive society to one where men and women stand on a level plane. We have also moved to gender inclusiveness, enabling people who do not identify themselves as male or female, to learn, work or exert their creativity to their fullest potential. In 2012, Thailand saw its first case of gender change in the official registration when a 25-year-old male, who is an intersex since birth, was permitted to switch his title to “Miss” after passing a medical test and receiving support of the National Human Rights Committee. Last year, Thammasat University allowed students to dress according to their ‘preferred gender’.

Who knows, perhaps within this generation gender equality could become an obsolete concept. The world could be genderless, and whether one is from Mars or Venus will bear no significance to their achievements or qualities. The world will also become “genderful” when everyone can freely choose to identify with any gender, is treated with equal respect and receives due recognition from society. By then, it won’t really matter who rocks the cradle or rules the world since all genders can share and shift roles in what might be called our co-working space.


Panom Thongprayoon

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