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Globalization and Women in Southeast Asian Higher Education Management

by Carmen Luke - 2002

This paper draws on data from a group case study of women in higher education management in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. I investigate culture-specific dimensions of what the Western literature has conceptualized as "glass ceiling" impediments to women's career advancement in higher education. I frame my argument within recent debates about globalization and "glocalization" to show how the push–pull and disjunctive dynamics of globalization are experienced in local sites by social actors who traverse global flows and yet remain tethered to local discourses, values, and practices. All of the women in this study were trained in Western universities and are fluent English speakers, world-class experts in their fields, well versed with equity discourses, and globally connected on international NGO and academic circuits. They are indeed global cosmopolitans. And yet their testimonies indicate that so-called Asian values and religious-cultural ideologies demand the enactment of a specific construct of Asian femininity that militates against meritocratic equality and academic career aspirations to senior management levels. Despite the global nature of the university and increasing global flows of academics, students, and knowledge, the politics of academic glass ceilings are not universal but always locally inflected with cultural values and norms. As such, the politics of disadvantage for women in higher education require local and situated analyses in the context of global patterns of the educational status of women and the changing nature of higher education.

This paper draws on data from a group case study of women in higher education management in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. I investigate culture-specific dimensions of what the Western literature has conceptualized as "glass ceiling" impediments to women's career advancement in higher education. I frame my argument within recent debates about globalization and "glocalization" to show how the push-pull and disjunctive dynamics of globalization are experienced in local sites by social actors who traverse global flows and yet remain tethered to local discourses, values, and practices. All of the women in this study were trained in Western universities and are fluent English speakers, world-class experts in their fields, well versed with equity discourses, and globally connected on international nongovernment organization (NGO) and academic circuits. They are indeed global cosmopolitans. And yet their testimonies indicate that so-called Asian values and religious-cultural ideologies demand the enactment of a specific construct of Asian femininity that militates against meritocratic equality and academic career aspirations to senior management levels. Despite the global nature of the university and increasing global flows of academics, students, and knowledge, the politics of academic glass ceilings are not universal but always locally inflected with cultural values and norms. As such, the politics of disadvantage for women in higher education require local and situated analyses in the context of global patterns of the educational status of women and the changing nature of higher education.


Between 1997 and 1999 I conducted interviews with 44 academic women in higher education management positions in Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. My aim was to identify how women's academic career opportunities, aspirations, and experiences might be mediated by cultural differences. My interest in this topic stems from my own personal and professional history. In recent years I have been teaching in some of these countries as part of Australia's and my university's push into the region. The globalization or internationalization of education has created new people and information flows consisting of students and academics, and Australia is not exempt from an increasingly competitive educational marketplace. In that context, as well as through the annual treks to overseas conferences, sabbaticals, and research projects, I have met and formed many friendships with academic women in this region of the world. It is through those experiences that I have listened to and shared women's experiences in academia. However, what this has taught me is that underlying some fairly universal patterns of inequality and glass ceiling barriers, there are many cultural differences that shape different forms of unequal access and career mobility that have not been investigated in research on women in higher education. This, then, has been my personal project and research focus over the last few years.

Regardless of where one travels, university buildings may look culturally distinguishable, but universities across cultural variations operate globally along similar lines in terms of governance and organizational structures, degree programs, position classifications, ethos (research and publishing culture), and forms of labor (research and teaching). I began this study, therefore, with the sense that a universally similar workplace and educational institution such as the university is a local adaptation of a European model of education to specific cultural values and practices that might have differential effects on women—both in terms of their educational opportunities and participation and their employment and career prospects within the institution. How women's career opportunities, aspirations, and experiences might be mediated by cultural differences was the starting point for my research.

Culture and cultural difference are contested terms. They are the core vocabulary of new times, springing out of the cultural turn in the social and human sciences. Debates among poststructuralist, postmodern, postcolonial, and cultural studies theorists, in particular, have pushed for the need to locate culture at the center of analysis to understand, inter alia, new cultural forms of (hybrid) identity politics (Bhabha, 1994), "new ethnicities," (Hall, 1996c), and changing symbolic and meaning systems in the context of globalization (Appadurai, 1996, 2000; Robertson, 1997). Culture, like globalization, is a contested term, but generally used to describe the formal and informal meaning systems people negotiate to "do" everyday life whether online (Internet cultures), at work (organizational, workplace, and professional cultures), at school (classroom cultures, teacher cultures, youth cultures), or the neighborhood ("gangsta" cultures). Feminism has a well-established corpus on patriarchal or masculinist culture; Bourdieu (1988) introduced us to academic culture, and cultural studies moved us from high culture (cf. Williams, 1981) to ordinary, low or popular culture—from Star Trek fandom culture to women's soap opera cultures. The list goes on.

Here I use the term culture to refer to the social organization of meaning—the codes and meaning systems, values, and social repertoires that people variously adhere to, contest, and remake. I make this elementary claim in specific reference to the notions of Asian values, Asian culture, and oriental culture, repeatedly referred to by the women in this study as the leitmotif for their and others' actions. By cultural difference I mean variations in orientations (e.g., attitudes toward women, educational opportunities, gender equity) between East and West, and across the four countries in this study, each with unique colonial and post independence histories, religions, ethnic mixes, state systems, and forms of governmentality. What the women referred to as Asian or oriental culture is as much received folklore as nationalist rhetoric or, for that matter, as cultural constructions. There is no one particular culture in any society. People traverse many—often objectively incommensurate—cultural frames of reference.

Culture is not a bounded reality sui generis but always already constitutive of historically creolized codes and hybridized meaning systems (Bhabha, 1994, 1996) that are enacted and recrafted in everyday practices. They are material and ideological (Hall, 1993, 1996b) and differentiated in local fields of privilege and power, dominant class, gender, race, and religious interests. Because "cultural practices are never outside the play of power" (Hall, 1996a, p. 302), they are perpetually contested, transformed, and, fundamentally, political—hence a cultural politics. Constructs of culture are not free-floating signifiers without agency: In Singapore and Malaysia, for instance, the state actively constructs and legislates narratives of Asian values and Islamic cultural values.

Culture is contingent and I use the term here with caution. I am mindful that academic culture, the culture of universities, and patriarchal or Asian culture are place-bound narratives. Nonetheless, as discourses they do seem to have a "life of their own," and they do seem real enough to subject people to act in culturally appropriate ways—as these women's comments testify in the latter part of this paper.


The women held positions ranging from deans and deputy deans, to heads of department and research centre directors, spread across faculties of arts and humanities, the social and natural sciences, law, and medicine. No woman in any of the four countries held positions as university vice-chancellor (president) or deputy vice-chancellor (vice-president). All participants had at least one overseas postgraduate degree, most commonly a PhD from the United Kingdom, the United States, or Australia. In Hong Kong, 11 women between ages 34 and 67 years were interviewed, of whom 8 were married and 3 were single. The Singapore sample of 9 women ranged between 32 and 56 years of age, of whom 5 were married and 4 were single. Ten women, aged between 43 to 55 years, were interviewed in Thailand, of whom 7 were married and 3 were single. The Malaysian sample consisted of 14 women, between 41 and 58 years of age, of whom 9 were married and 5 were single. Women who identified as single were either never married, widowed, or divorced.

The women were identified through snowball sampling emanating from contacts through my own professional and social network and university Web site searches. Initial postal or e-mail contacts included a two-page overview of the study and a short questionnaire seeking standard demographic information. Interview questions were formulated for each country in collaboration with local academic women who are my colleagues. Most interviews were conducted in women's offices, although on several occasions we talked over lunch or afternoon tea in restaurants. This created some transcription problems as the noise of restaurant talk, splashing fountains, live piano, or piped-in music interfered with our taped conversations. But even in the women's offices, noise interference was often unavoidable as air conditioners, aging ceiling fans, lawnmowers, or building construction often drowned out dialogue, despite my use of state of the art microphones and tape recorders. Such is the often chaotic and unpredictable nature of fieldwork.

At the close of the interview, I gave each woman a sample of recent papers I had published on women in higher education in previous case studies. Because Thailand was my first case study, I had no previous published papers on the topic to leave with the women there. I offered my papers so that the women would get a sense of my writing, of the sociological and feminist approach I take on the issue of women in higher education, and so that they would feel comfortable with the ways I had represented and interpreted other women's experiences. Everyone was advised that they were free to withdraw their transcripts if they had any reservations about how I was writing up the research. All interview transcripts were returned for checking, editing, and validation. None of the women in Thailand, Singapore, or Hong Kong asked to make changes to their transcripts. Several Malaysian women, however, edited their transcripts to improve grammatical clarity and to delete statements they thought could be misread and considered racially insensitive. I also explained to all the women that I would make an effort to publish the ensuing paper in a regional (English language) journal and to present findings at local conferences to return the data to the site and community of women from where it was derived. This is a crucial ethical and political strategy in feminist research that is particularly important in contexts where the researcher is not a cultural local (Haraway, 1988; Scheurich, 1997). I presented the final case study of Malaysia at a joint conference of the Singapore and Malaysia Educational Research Associations held in Malacca in late 1999 and presented a synopsis of the entire study in 2001 at the annual Inter-University ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) conference in Singapore. Once I had prepared a draft of a paper for publication, it was sent to all participants for comment. Following this final validation, I subsequently submitted each case study paper to regional journals for publication and eventually sent copies of published papers to all women in each country case study (Luke, 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1999). I am still in regular contact with some of the women in each country.


In a landmark UNESCO report, Women in Higher Education Management (1993), editor Elizabeth Dines commented that "with hardly any exception the global picture is one of men outnumbering women at about five to one at middle management level and at about twenty or more to one at senior management level" (Dines, 1993). Two decades of feminist research, most of it emanating from North and Western countries, has asked, What is the problem? What are the many-leveled visible and invisible barriers that impede academic women's access to the most senior ranks in higher education? By now, we are familiar with some of the answers. Pipeline theories are often invoked to explain women's under representation by claiming that not enough women have come up through the system to form a critical mass of qualified candidates for senior positions. Glass ceiling explanations have highlighted the many overt and covert cultural and structural barriers that impede women's career paths.

The conceptual metaphors developed by feminist scholars over the last two decades to identify and theorize women's complex positioning within the profession of academics and the workplace of higher education signify spatial constraints that limit horizontal and vertical mobility. They conjure up images of "chilly climates" in pyramidal ice palaces or dungeons with cold "stone floors," Metaphors of glass or cellophane ceiling, "greasy pole" (Hede, 1994), "protective shield" (Still, 1993), "brick wall" (Bacchi, 1993), "sticky floor" (Poole, 1995), or "stone floor" (Heward, 1994; Heward, Taylor, & Vickers, 1997) have been widely used in feminist analyses of women's career trajectories and opportunities. More recently, glass walls metaphors have emerged to complement glass ceilings. Together, walls and ceilings construct a conceptual imagery of both vertical and horizontal impediments to women's career trajectories. Glass ceiling "graphically describes the relative scarcity of women leaders throughout the entire social structure" (Glazer-Raymo, 1999, p. 143).

The term glass ceiling generally refers to transparent cultural, organizational, and attitudinal barriers that maintain relatively rigid sex segregations in organizations. Politics of glass ceilings are commonly attributed to the closed ranks mentality and fraternity of a male bureaucratic and organizational culture. These are embedded in male managerial styles; discourse and language that shut women out; informal organizational cultures, also referred to as the "old boys club"; lack of transparency and accountability in hiring and promotion procedures, whereby male managers are free to reproduce the institution in their own image (men are more comfortable with and appoint others like them—namely other men). Within such exclusionary organizational environments, women are more reluctant to self-promote their achievements and capabilities, making them institutionally "invisible" (Nicolson, 1996). Glass ceilings are usually invisible to women and men: Women look up the occupational ladder and get a clear vision of the top rungs, but they can't always clearly see where they will encounter invisible obstacles. Men, on the other hand, "can look down and ask why women are not achieving and, seeing no barrier, can only surmise a lack of talent, commitment or energy" (King, 1997b, p. 94). Finally, cultural values and attitudes persist that strongly support women's child-care, family, and domestic responsibilities as priority over career aspirations.

Pipeline theory explanations depend on statistical quantification of female educational participation and outcomes for analytic and explanatory validity. By contrast, the concept of glass ceiling lends itself more to qualitative analyses of occupational and cultural variation. That is to say, the particularities of glass ceiling politics are specific to informal workplace cultures and professional milieus within occupations and organizations and are always specific to a society's cultural values and attitudes. Unlike private or other public sector industries (e.g., law, engineering, business, mining, health, public education), universities are fertile ground for horizontal sex segregations because universities credential the whole range of professions. As both workplace and research, training, credentialing institutions, universities are in fact hotbeds of vertical and horizontal sex segregation. Women are vertically clustered in lower level, low-pay, and low-status positions as academic and general staff and are concentrated horizontally in traditional female areas of study that, again, are generally low-prestige and low-pay professions (e.g., in social work, education, nursing, arts, humanities). Although women have broken into what used to be exclusively male areas of study, such as veterinary science, law, business, and medicine, the general pattern of sex segregation in disciplinary fields remains dispersed in what Becher (1989) termed academic tribes and territories.

Given what many scholars have called this chilly climate for women in universities (Clark, Garner, Higonnet, & Katrak, 1996; Cohen et al., 1998; Payne & Shoemark, 1995), women often self-select out of an untenable situation of working the double-day, maintaining a competitive research and publication record, sustaining an often unreasonable teaching load, counseling and supervising students, and putting in 14-hour days plus weekends in their administrative posts. Under such conditions, women's career aspirations erode, guilt mounts over the inability to do it all, family tensions and breakups are not uncommon, and, finally, as women pull out of the race, they confirm patriarchy's self-fulfilling prophecy that women don't have what it takes to stay the course for the long haul. This, then, makes them seem like unreliable candidates for the most highly coveted positions in the institution.

With some exceptions, in industrialized and newly industrializing countries around the world today, more girls have greater access to a longer education, more women enroll in postgraduate studies, and more women are in middle-management and senior positions in the private and some public sectors. As in the United States and Canada, western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, women today easily make up 50% of all undergraduate enrollments (although they concentrate in traditional female areas), and they generally constitute half of all academic and most of support (clerical) staff. Universities pride themselves on such numerical equity. But the flashpoint of inequality is in women's classification levels and promotional opportunities. Across countries, women are concentrated at lower levels and, increasingly, in part-time employment. Women have made great strides in attaining middle-management positions in public sector employment, but higher education, particularly the prestigious university sector, seems like a closed shop for women. Perhaps higher education is perniciously resistant to women's attainment of positions of power and authority because in any society, the university is commonly the most valued and often sacred knowledge industry, historically the exclusive preserve of men as speakers of truth and knowledge (Luke, 1996). There may well be hidden biases about the nature of academic work that may not even be self-evident to those who hold the power and authority over this most eminent of all knowledge industries.


In this section I outline some aspects of globalization and link these with recent debates about an emerging global professional class of knowledge workers, also referred to as a new cosmopolitan intellectual elite. I argue that women in senior management are part of this group of mobile-global academics, and I build my argument around Robertson's (1995) concept of glocalization.

The university is both workplace and educational institution. The global proliferation of an essentially European model of the university, coupled with a drift toward increasing standardization of educational content, delivery and credentialing wrought by educational globalization, suggests an increasingly standardized and universal institutional structure (Mallea, 1999; Scott, 1998; UNESCO, 1998b). Yet despite the global reach of Western models of higher education, scientific paradigms, knowledge dissemination networks, and, not least, English as the global language of scholarly production and exchange, universities are nonetheless locally adapted in different nation-states with different cultural inflections and political agendas (Altbach, 1989; Spring, 1998). Gender politics and glass ceilings, likewise, may well reveal global patterns of disadvantage (Mak, 1996; Stiver Lie & Malik, 1994; UNESCO, 1998c), but they are regionally and nationally inflected with local cultural and political ideologies (Luke, 2001).

New global flows of people and information have formed new communities and networks across societal borders. Higher education is one such globalized knowledge community in which new patterns of knowledge, accreditation, research alliances, and social relationships are emerging (Scott, 1998). Although higher education remains under the bureaucratic control of a male managerial elite, academic women too are circulating along international educational currents in new configurations that enable new contacts, relationships, and opportunities for knowledge exchange. Increasingly, women everywhere are getting connected. Education has become a global trade, and technologies have enabled new forms of community and knowledge exchange. We might recall the tremendous amount of organization, lobbying, and political debate preceding the 1995 U.N. conference on women held in Beijing, particularly over concerns about Tibetan participants and other politically volatile issues.

Part of the development of postindustrial capitalism in tandem with the emergence of what Appadurai (1990) has termed global mediascapes, ethnoscapes, technoscapes, ideoscapes, and finanscapes is the formation of a new bourgeoisies, a new middle class of information and service managers, political elites, and knowledge brokers (e.g., Robison & Goodman, 1996). This new elite includes knowledge experts—often academics—who constitute a new class of professional nonpartisan politicians serving on international organizations, regional government and nongovernmental associations, regional branches of the World Bank, and UNESCO or NGO development and aid agencies. Granted, in Southeast Asia at least, they coexist in various alliances and collaborations with old-style modernist political and corporate dynasties (Rodan, 1996). Nonetheless, the cultural frames of reference, lifestyle, attitudinal, aspirational, and professional similarities among this new global middle class suggests that class and ideological differences are more marked and evident today within than between societies (Chua, 2000; Kahn, 1998).

Women have become part of this new middle-class professional elite. The women in my case studies, those working in cosmopolitan Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur, were constantly on the go between countries on university business, government business, or both, and traveling to an endless round of conferences in the United Kingdom and America. All were familiar with concepts of glass ceiling, affirmative action, gender equity in education, quality assurance, lifelong learning, and so forth. These are global discourses saturating UNESCO policy and briefing papers, academic debate, journals, and conferences in which these women participate and of which they are authors. They are world experts on tropical medicine, aquaculture, educational administration, Chinese literature, cardiology, and so forth. They publish in international English language journals and presses; some have property in the United States, England, or Australia; and they send their children to elite North American or British universities. I met many in their homes, or was offered transport in their cars, and was often astounded at the level of affluence in which these women lived that far exceeded my own solidly middle-class existence in Australia. Arguably, there is a new global elite of academic knowledge workers of which women are a part—mobile, Westernized, relatively affluent, and part of the international currents of higher education and the corporate heavyweights of NGOs, UNESCO, or World Bank. Several women in this study were working with NGOs in girls' literacy programs in Laos and Cambodia, with WHO in AIDS education, with prostitution rehab centers in Bangkok, and sex education programs among Thai Karen, Lahu, or Shah hill-tribes, whose daughters are most vulnerable to Bangkok procurers of hostesses.

Global discourses, whether of social justice and equity, the U.N.'s dictum on human rights including the right to education, or the global proliferation of the term globalization itself nonetheless are situated discourses. They are authored and conceptualized by embodied subjects living everyday material lives in local sites of family, community, nation, and workplace (e.g., the university). And yet the local is not a pristine, culturally authentic site from which pure standpoints and positions are articulated, somehow immune from global economic or cultural reference points and the push-pull dynamics of uneven roll-out effects and local uptakes. What we might provisionally call local standpoints are tightly woven blends of contradictory positions and discourses that are not uniform, that do not speak one voice, and cannot be taken as one distinctly Asian position, or even a pan-Asian ideology (Olds, Dicken, Kelly, Kong, & Yeung, 1999).

Standardization and differentiation are among the defining features of globalization, but current intellectual discourse and media popularizations of globalization have tended to over determine standardization (cf. Coronil, 2000). This clouds conceptual and analytic clarity about the issues. Robertson and Khondker (1998, p. 32) rightly note that globalization has become a slogan that has "rapidly become a scapegoat for a wide range of ecological, economic, psychological, medical, political, social and cultural problems." On one hand, the literature on globalisation has made gestures to complexity, uneven, ambiguous, and heterogeneous effects. But on the other hand, it also has tended to overemphasize homogeneity (of the flows and organization of capital and local economic activity) and uniformity (of identities, cultural experiences, consumer desires, and behaviors). Globalization is not a one-way street, a monolithic force voraciously gobbling up the margins, eroding local cultures, and leaving a global footprint of McWorld across nation-state and cultural differences (Chua, 2000; Luke & Luke, 2000). Robertson (1992, 1995, 1997), King (1995, 1997a), and other globalization theorists (Abu-Lughod, 1997; Beyer, 1998; Pieterse, 1995) have repeatedly argued that global forces, trends, or systems are only manifest, intelligible, and materialized in local sites peopled by localized human subjects. And yet rejections of the "myth of globalisation" (Leyshon, 1997) must not fall prey to romanticizing the local. For the local is never purely local—an untainted, pristine, and authentic community, social structure, or cultural practice—but always already embedded in historical sediments of extralocal influences and practices. Moreover, globalizing processes overlay differently in different nation-states, they often pull in different directions, and they are locally taken up and translated in ways not always guaranteed or predictable by the imaginers of the center accused of masterminding that "brake-less train wreaking havoc" (Harvey, 1995, p. 8).

Robertson's term glocalization attempts to capture homogenization and heterogenization as "complementary and interpenetrative" trends. In other words, globalization often popularized as Barber's "McWorld" (1996) or Ritzer's "McDonaldization" thesis (1998) suggests that the global exists beyond the local, independent of local interpretations, appropriations, resistances, or reworking in the interests of local communities or nation-states. If anything, the practices and discourses of globalization accelerate the linking of localities as much as it generates differentiation between and within localities, particularly in terms of ethnic identity politics (Pieterse, 1995). Particularism has become a global value. Within this "universalization of particularism" (Robertson, 1992, p. 49) the local has become more conscious of globality, of its place in relation to a global (capitalist) order, global (environmental) concerns, and the global scope of local diversities f (Waters, 1995).

In Appadurai's (1990) "disjunctive order" the local always already contains aspects of the global. The global does not exist as some abstract macro entity independent of local figurations that enact, contain, redirect or, indeed, theorize those seemingly abstract global flows of capital, ideology, culture, or power. It is on the ground in local sites, where extant precursor ideologies, power/knowledge blocs, cultural systems and values engage with aspects of globalization in different ways, for different self-interested strategic ends, and always in ways that create new (but provisional) universals and new particulars (Luke, 1995, p. 101). The local and global "commingle in 'new' glocal modes," which means that although people and nations may "access the same symbols, markets, commodities," the crisscrossing and push-pull dynamics of internal and transnational exchanges create "fresh identities, unities, and values . . . in a new pattern of glocalization" (p. 101). Under new globalizing conditions that today permeate higher education, academics in Southeast Asia and no doubt elsewhere have become relay points or cultural conduits through which global and local discourses and practices flow (Appadurai, 2000).

My position, then, is that one can begin from global facts or trends of, say, educational expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), female educational attainment, educational expansion, and so forth. But local analysis remains crucial to any critical understanding of how global facts or effects, flows or trends are actualized, mediated, or contested in particular nation-states: by political actors and regimes of governmentality and the multiple localities and differences within nation-states pivoting around class, geography, ethnicity, gender, religion, and so forth.

For instance, academic research has provided two decades of evidence confirming that women globally are concentrated at lower position levels, they earn less than men, have less access to power and decision making in the institution, and are severely underrepresented in the top echelons of higher education sectors. Working class and rural women are globally disadvantaged by lack of, or only limited access to, educational and employment opportunities, to social, cultural, and economic capital. Women globally are more likely than men to be the primary person responsible for child care, and they are more likely to earn less than men. On a global average girls receive less education than boys. Women worldwide are at greater risk of rape and domestic abuse than men, and it is primarily women, not men, who are globally the object of rape as a weapon of war. Further, social and economic indices, such as those produced by UNESCO or OECD, divide the world into developed, first-world and developing, third-world zones, or more recent transitional economies of newly postindustrializing countries such as Singapore or Hong Kong. Within such differentiated development bands we see further global patterns of similarities among women's economic status, labor participation, and income contributions.

Such "facts" of the global condition of women, such a "provisional totalization" (Butler, 1995), highlights a general political and sociological problem that requires that it be genealogized through contextualized culture-specific analysis, mindful that such analysis is itself a narrative embedded in a history, a cultural framework, and a location. We can begin, then, from global facts. However, the way those facts are experienced by social actors remains ultimately a' local experience mediated by situated subjects. It is not a question of which analytic perspective—global or local—is a better choice. Rather, it is to find ways of explaining how the systemic (globalization) interacts with the unit (the local) and how they variously co-constitute and reconstruct each other. Today, it "becomes much harder to make operational sense of the concept of globalization in terms other than its more observable consequences at lower levels of complexity and abstraction than it is at the systems level" (Bartelson, 2000, p. 187).

Arguably, there is no global citizen per se but only locally situated embodied subjects. Because globalization (of consumerism, information, or McCulture) is always only enacted and experienced in local sites, analysis of people doing global things, by definition, remains localized. Thus, the researcher or theorist too is located in a locale, a situated context, despite engaging in global intellectual work of adhering to internationally recognized paradigmatic frameworks and the universalism of scholarly protocols of inquiry. Constituent subjects of global scholarly communities in any discipline are situated in place-specific institutions and communities, nation-state governments and ideologies, real neighborhoods and office spaces, staff rooms, and classrooms. How we read theory or the world, interpret and write up data or OECD statistics, how we apprehend difference and the "other," or how and what we teach is ultimately grounded and saturated in a view from somewhere, a centric view.

In short, "there is no view from nowhere" (Bordo, 1990, p. 140). Debates about positionality, identity, location, and locale have been long running in feminist circles (Benhabib, Butler, Cornell, & Fraser, 1995; Nicholson, 1990), and as Susan Bordo (1990, p. 140) put it some 10 years ago, "We always 'see' from the points of view that are invested with social, political and personal interests, inescapably 'centric' in one way or another." Theories of globalization also emanate from particular subject positions localized in specific histories, intellectual paradigms and communities, and local cultural contexts (Friedman, 1997)—inescapably centric and expressing a particular optic. What, then, can we make of local voices, local standpoints, saturated as they always already are by extralocal influences? I turn to issues of local standpoints next to situate the women's comments in the second half of this paper within the "glocal" confluence of global (i.e., Western) and particularistic Asian optics or points of view.


Postcolonial scholars in Southeast Asia are not exempt from the Western intellectual paradigms that have dominated scholarship globally, and questions of local authenticity are recurrent (Clammer, 1995; Rajan, 1997). Western postcolonial scholarship has engaged in a long-standing debate about positionality: Can the subaltern speak—who can speak for whom? On one hand "the 'post-colonial' middle classes themselves, journalists, artists, academics, among them many women, are simultaneously creating, living in and contesting their own middle-class and cosmopolitan cultural forms" (Stivens, 1998, p. 20). But academics who inhabit the urbanized, middle-class, and globalized spaces that they theorize, describe, or critique are in fact "the identity spaces of the identifiers themselves" (Friedman, 1997, p. 85), and hence those who define and master this "constantly mixing world" are the intellectual elite, the "cultural theorists" theorizing themselves (p. 73). Stivens (1998) is worth citing at length on this point:

The role of these intelligentsia can become extremely complex in such contexts. Some of them espouse the somewhat second-hand globalized, post-colonial (actually mostly U.S. academy-based) agendas of speaking as and for the subaltern underdogs; their position is made even more complex when they sometimes embrace versions of anti-Western modernity. . . . The elite situation of "Third world" intellectuals, however can undermine [their] claims to authenticity. They have to distance themselves from their own privileged practices, tied as these are into global scholarly enterprises, (p. 20)

Many of the women in my study (only a few of whom would consider themselves, but not formally label themselves, feminists), rejected Western feminism, Western approaches to breaking glass ceilings or implementing gender equity programs. Their ambivalence about their own local identity and political commitments to local problems and solutions, and their connectedness to global debates, issues, and scholarly enterprises, came up repeatedly in our conversations. One Thai deputy dean, also a friend who traveled with me on fieldwork trips, does research in remote communities on technology transfer, and she spent considerable time describing" her fieldwork and explaining the importance of working with the people, investigating local problems. Her research and analytic models, however, were entirely based on American scholarship, and her analytic models (pretests and posttests and statistical quantification of instructional program exposure, skill reproduction, transformation, or loss, etc.) seemed to me somewhat questionable in a rural Thai context.

Two postcolonial feminist literary scholars in my study (one each in Hong Kong and Malaysia) provided astute analyses of current political conditions, crises in national identity issues, and the role of women in society and in nation building. Their conversations were heavily referenced to Western postcolonial scholars with whom I am familiar, and this common stock of knowledge provided an intellectual bridge for our discussion. Both do research on local literary works but, again, principally through Western intellectual paradigms, which frame the very terms of debate about the local. Nonetheless, the women's critiques and explications of the local mirrored what has been raised in the Western postcolonial literature and therefore did not seem to generate any new locally voiced insights. As Stivens points out in regards to the Malaysian intellectual elite, "Claims of some Malaysian intellectuals to be providing (more) authentic knowledge of their own conditions run the risk of overlooking their own location within dominant Western ways of knowing and their own elite position" (1998, p. 90).

Another woman, a dean in management and administration, spent considerable time at the beginning of our interview demonstrating her thoroughly Western scholarly credentials, querying me if I was familiar with certain authors, where and with whom she had studied, and so forth. I was then given a minilecture on the importance of her work to local entrepreneurship, especially small business enterprises in remote communities where barter and traditional family connections still dominate, and where food stalls or small shops are often the only means for women to earn an income. I could not help but wonder what insights could be gained from applications of business administration theory to women's food stalls or from statistical analysis of rural women's use of technological knowledge for fixing water pumps or mechanized farming tools.

And yet these same women expressed strong anti-Western sentiments, often in terms such as "westoxification" and "dollarization," the very issue Stivens raises about the complexity of postcolonial academics' double bind positioning of adhering to Western intellectual paradigms and yet embracing "versions of anti-Western modernity." They reject Western feminist models but are active in organizations and grassroots movements to eliminate, for instance, domestic violence, borrowing Western interventionist models that include telephone hotlines, legal aid for women, emergency shelters, and so forth. Arguably this new class of globally oriented yet locally based academics cannot wholly be seen as organic intellectuals, tied to and the voice of sons and daughters of the soil. Their identities, class position, and academic labor traverse within ambivalent and often contradictory layers of insider-outsider politics in their own local sites.

But these are also the same class of women I meet at conferences in Australia, Europe, or the United States. They are all fluent English speakers, and many are multilingual. They all have a stock of global stories to tell that typify the new cosmopolitanism: who has the best frequent flyer programs, best airports, or cab drivers around the world, or which five-star hotels in Bangkok, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur offer the best Mother's Day lunches. As is often the case among women, our children were a common topic. Class status and privilege extends to positional goods of educational qualifications, and conversations almost always included talk about their children's overseas credentials from the best universities or private schools. Several women had property in the United States and England and spent part of (northern) summers there to spend time with their children studying abroad. Academics everywhere are usually "high in status but low in income" (Glammer, 1995, p. 27), and women's income alone would not account for their class privileges. The conduit for women's access to material affluence, positional and symbolic goods was through husbands who held positions ranging from high court judges and senior military personnel to CEOs in the corporate sector or in their own companies.

In fact, many of the women I interviewed lived in levels of affluence that far exceeded the sorts of class-based signifiers I associate with my own Western, middle-class milieu. This became apparent mostly in situations where the women invited me into their homes. Many of these residences, whether single-dwelling houses in Kuala Lumpur or condominiums in Hong Kong and Singapore, seemed palatial in contrast to my own typically Australian little hut back home. These homes are staffed by servants, filled with expensive and opulent furnishing, and have garages packed with top-drawer Euro cars. In fact, I recall one evening on the way to dinner at a posh country club with one of the women and her family. I was sitting in the back seat of a Mercedes 600—my one and only experience inside this hypersignifier of wealth and status—and wincing at the thought of "How am I going to write this up?"

Arguably, many Asian senior academic women are Westernized, globalized, and middle class but at the same time differentiated, local, and often anti-Western. I do not suggest that all academics or all academic women fit the image of the cosmopolitan intellectual elite that globalization theorists such as Friedman (1995, 1997), Cheah (1998), Hannerz (1992, 1997), and others have described as key agents in globalization processes. But certainly among my own social-academic network in Southeast Asia and the women in my study, many fit the characterization of a cosmopolitan and global intellectual elite I have described so far. Under hijab (veil), Rolexes flash and cellphones go off in Italian designer purses.

I now turn to discuss women's educational participation and outcomes in relation to modernization and development issues. As will become evident in the next section, lack of educational achievement cannot account for women's under representation in senior academic management. Rather, as local feminist scholars have argued, and as the women in this study repeatedly explained, the discourse of so-called Asian values keeps women tethered to visions of Asian femininity that encourage education and professional aspirations but always obligated "to do the family first" (PuruShotam, 1998).


"The unifying theme of education as a tool for development" (Mak, 1996, p. x) is common among all international or global feminist studies of women in management (e.g., Adler & Izraeli, 1994), women and education (e.g., Conway & Bourque, 1993), and women in development (Marchand & Parpart, 1995). Reform to improve girls' and women's access to education is a long-standing and global issue, particularly in the postwar period. Educational access and participation and government commitments to reform differ country by country in relation to religious, ethnic, and class differences, urban and rural differences, legacies of colonial regimes and post-colonial development, and the various educational models implemented by postindependence governments. Yet Hong Kong and Singapore are among Asia's wealthiest and most Westernized countries, with near gender parity of primary, secondary, and tertiary participation. Adult literacy rate in Hong Kong is 88% for men and 96% for women; in Singapore the rate is 86% for men and 95% for women; in Malaysia the rate is 78% for men and 89% for women (UNESCO, 1998a). In Malaysia more girls than boys complete secondary education (equivalent, as in Singapore, to the British GCE "O" level), although in 1990 this combined female/male cohort represented only 19% of the 17-18 age group (Sidin, 1996). Women are underrepresented in vocational education but comprise about 45% of university undergraduate enrollments. Arguably, the pipeline theory of trickle effects from schooling to university does not hold as single-factor explanation for women's under representation in senior higher education management in these three countries.

As elsewhere in the region, Thai women "have participated strongly in educational enrolment [sic]" but the "teak ceiling" nonetheless remains:

The militaristic male tradition of the court was handed down to the modern bureaucracy. Few women ascend the heights of politics or administration. Few even occupy roles associated with political power—such as public intellectuals or political journalists. . . . Most women work. A few manage. Almost none govern (Phongpaichit & Baker, 1996, pp. 113-114)

Thailand's adult literacy rate is 91% for men arid 96% for women, but compulsory schooling ends in ninth grade. In 1994, 90% of the relevant age cohort completed sixth grade, a vast improvement from 1969, when only one third of students continued past fourth grade (Unger, 1998). Thailand has the lowest secondary school participation rates among ASEAN nations, and only about 6% of 18- to 24-year-olds get past state examinations to attend university. And yet "of those few Thai citizens who enter university there are almost equal numbers of men and women" (Limanonda, 2000). The most recent data issued by the Ministry of University Affairs (1998) lists staff distribution at position classification levels and student entry and exit rates across the private and public university sectors, but none are disaggregated by sex. Again, gender breakdown of educational participation or staffing is hard to come by, but certainly in Thailand, as elsewhere in the region, the huge expansion of education in the last three decades is "viewed as a strong force for Thailand's industrial expansion and economic well-being" (Chutintaranond & Cooparat, 1995, p. 56) and is seen as a key indicator of the burgeoning Thai middle class (Girling, 1996; Ockey, 1999; Unger, 1998), which itself is now producing the boom in educational demand. Current moves to extend compulsory schooling from 9 to 12 years have been temporarily thwarted by the economic crisis, but educational and political arguments for educational expansion continue and are premised on human capital investment and development theories.

Women's literacy rates are consistently higher than men's, women's first degree enrollments match male rates, and in some countries women parallel and sometimes exceed men's participation rates in professional degree programs historically the preserve of men. In Malaysia, for instance, women outnumber men in dentistry and law, and comprise almost 50% in medicine, basic and applied sciences, economics and public administration, and business and accounting (Sidin, 1996, pp. 132-133). In Singapore, women's university enrollments increased dramatically from 44.2% in 1980-1981 to 55.3% in 1983-1984, following revised admission requirements that awarded higher weightings to language achievements which favored women (Lee, Campbell, & Chia, 1999). In 1997, only 4.4% of 20- to 59-year-old women had a tertiary qualification, compared with 12.1% of men in the same age group (Chan, 2000). Again, precise figures are hard to come by because the Singapore Department of Statistics and Ministry of Education provide no gender differentiation for student enrollments at any levels of education, educational attainment, higher degree graduate rates, or teaching staff across the sector. However, the National University of Singapore, the oldest and most prestigious of only two in the city-state, provides some gender-disaggregated data on student completion rates. In the 1996-1997 academic year, women comprised 55% of first-degree graduates and 49% of higher degree and postgraduate diploma graduates. Academic staff statistics account for classification distribution across institutions, promotion rates, permanent and visiting staff qualifications, and nationalities but no gender distribution. In 1997, 11.5% of women in the workforce were tertiary educated (Lee et al., 1999).

The administrative and funding body for public universities in Hong Kong, the University Grants Committee, provides limited gender distribution statistics for staff and students. In 1997-1998, out of a total of 17,000 academic staff, 25% were at senior lecturer and above, of which 14% were women (Hong Kong University Graduate Committee, 1999). Women comprised 49% of all full-time students in government-funded public universities, 49% of all part-time students (most of whom are mature-aged studying at the Open University of Hong Kong), and 31% enrolled in technical colleges. Female participation rates at all levels of higher education have increased from 39% in 1991-1992 to 53% in 1998-1999. Despite the limited statistical accounts of women's educational participation and outcomes rates in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, the figures nonetheless suggest that lack of education—an alleged thin trickle of underqualified women in the pipeline—cannot be seen as the primary cause of women's under representation in senior management, whether in private or public higher education institutions or public sector employment.


In Asia, women's education, their social status, and role in public life have always been complicated and difficult to reconcile within often sharply opposing cultural-religious systems and modernist development and market ideologies. In her analysis of gender issues and educational development in Asia, Mazumdar (1993) argues that "most Asian political elites, after encountering Western imperialism, have accepted the ideal of gender equality, but the principle has been hard to square with the traditional value systems and social organization." Different postcolonial regimes have indeed attempted to combine Western gender equity ideologies, particularly in regards to marriage laws, employment, and educational policies, with Asian or Confucian or Muslim ideologies based on patriarch-headed family hierarchies, filial piety and obedience, the maintenance of an inter-generational family unit, a strong work ethic, an ethos of self-reliance, and so forth. Insistence on the virtues of alleged Asian values combined with the goals of rapid economic growth allows governments to promote and sustain Asian traditions and values with "western free market notions such as competitive individualism and meritocratic equality," and to selectively craft a "composite of 'Asian' traditional and 'western' middle class elements [which] resonate with the core values of; the family within the Confucian social system" (Hill & Lian, 1995, p. 155).

Asian values is a contested term on at least two counts. First there is no Asia other than as geographic marker and as image of an orientalist imaginary constructed by the West (cf. Said, 1979) as much as by scholars, private, and public interests within the vast diversity of countries across Asia. Second, it is only in the last few decades that Asian values have become the focus of academic scrutiny, government legislation, and media popularization. From about the mid-1970s, talk about Asian values emerged in response to crisis identified by governments and scholars as incursions of modernization, Westernization, Americanization. Asian values are political resurrections, indeed reinventions, of neo-traditionalist visions of Confucian and Islamic values that elevate so-called Eastern organic collectivism over Western self-interested individualism. Asian values are widely stereotyped and essentialized as self-reliance, thrift, hard work, and communitarianism. These, in turn, are said to be culturally embedded in a strong patriarch-headed and intergenerational family unit, An customs of filial obedience and personal (not state) responsibility for kin and aged, a communitarian rather than individualist ethos, alleged propensities for avoiding rather than engaging in conflict respect for one's superiors in family and workplace hierarchies, and so forth. In Singapore, Asian values have been legally enshrined in Singapore's Family Values (1996) and as numerous scholars have argued, core or Asian values are principally about the politics of nation building, managing national identity issues in multiethnic societies, and crafting a discourse of the social in ways that let governments pursue economic visions and policies (Brown, 2000; Hill & Lian, 1995; Pinches, 1999; Rowen, 1998).

In Malaysia, Asian and Islamic values are used interchangeably, but it is Islamic values that the women referred to and which the state heavily promotes through "a complex juggling act" of "championing what can be seen as a 'moderate', reinvented, neo-traditionalist Islam, while managing revivalist discontents" (Stivens, 2000, p. 30). However, the management of the discourse of Islamic values includes generalized Asian values to incorporate the sizeable Indian and Chinese communities. Moreover, Malaysia is in the geographic centre of Southeast Asia, and Malays, like Muslim Indonesians, see themselves more as Asian than Arab. In Thailand and Hong Kong, there is no formal discourse of Asian values, although all the women in this study made repeated references to Asian notions of feminine propriety, the "Asian family," the "oriental," "and Confucian" or "Buddhist" way. Everywhere, however, Asian values center on the family as the fundamental unit for the inculcation and reproduction of Asian values (Edwards & Roces, 2000). As the women will explain later in the paper, this has profound ramifications for women who "tend to be the symbolic and embodied bearers of ethnic and nationalist ideologies because of their socialized compliance and secondary social status" (Yuval-Davis, 1993). As feminist sociologist Soin (1996) observes of Singapore:

In Singapore there has been a trend of using the women and the family as instrument of social change and this has characterized government policy since the '60s. The Government has used its executive and legislative powers over women and the family to attain general and specific national objectives without analysis of gender consequences. Women's empowerment has hardly been a consideration for policy-makers, (p. 194)

Asian values are as much strategic political constructs—inventions that easily freeze-frame history and essentialize romanticized visions of cultural authenticity—as they are an historical consequence of colonialism, especially in Malaysia and Singapore, where the residues of Empire are palpable in various mutations decades after independence.

Across Asia, the family, not the state, is the locus of social and financial support and security in times of individual or family crisis. Women are thus double-bound and easily recuperated into the normative construct of the Asian family fold. The best educational qualifications and professional credentials, and the legal enshrinement of meritocratic equity, are no safeguard for women against state-sanctioned cultural and religious ideologies that continue to control the social status, role, and containment of women, despite allowing them access to the material and symbolic goods signifying the modern Thai, Singaporean, Hong Kong, or Malaysian woman. Nirmala PuruShotam (1998) likens the normative construct of the Asian family to political and ideological hijab, an insidious boundary of male-defined cultural constraints supported by civil codes and sanctions that let women roam, consume, get an education and hold a job but always tethered "to do the family first." Women are ideologically shrouded and "cannot see and so reread the frames by which they do their lives" (p. 161).

Structurally the state can legalize and perform a rhetorical commitment to gender equity. However, subtending public proequity sentiments and government rhetoric, far more deeply entrenched cultural attitudes toward women maintain powerful gendered hierarchies in public and private life that both men and hegemonized women enact and collude with. This is certainly the case in the West where, despite decades of very public debate and feminist consciousness raising about equity issues, a broad array of institutionalized and legalized proequity interventions coupled with support programs for women, accountability measures, and so forth have only marginally turned the tide in favor of women in high status leadership positions across the professions, in politics, and the corporate and civil service sectors. In Southeast Asia the picture is even more complex. The political traumas of decolonization, nationalist movements and postindependence nation building, the rise and iron grip of political elites, all coupled with the drive toward modernization, industrialization, and economic growth, create historical environments in which women's education and their emergence in the public sphere has been caught between conflicting pressures. "On the one hand, nationalist leaders campaigned to promote the education of women, but, on the other, the patriarchal values of existing elites undermined any real commitments to changing gender roles or expanding women's opportunities" (Mazumdar, 1993, p. 21). Interestingly enough, the leaders of those political elites, many in fact the nationalist leaders and heads of postindependence governments, were themselves Western educated.


Asian cultural values and attitudes, rooted in contemporary reworkings of Buddhist, Confucian, or Muslim religious codes, cast a pall everywhere in the region over women's political struggles for equity reforms, their professional aspirations and opportunities, and their autonomy and self-determination on their own terms. The women in this study all had pretty much the same thing to say about "the cultural mindset," "Asian," "oriental," "Chinese," "Muslim," or "Confucian" values and cultural politics that enforce what some consider a romanticized, traditional "oriental" construct of femininity. Yet others, mostly Muslim women, defended women's traditional roles and responsibilities as their natural place, as "the true nature of women," as a refuge from the excesses of Western and modernist visions of feminist women. Yet they also argued for the need for greater workplace flexibility to enable women to pursue both professional aspirations and duties to family and home.

The women in this study were urban, upper middle class, highly educated, and professionally successful. They were all successful products of the very education systems that some critiqued and others held up as a model of meritocratic equity, of women's ability to succeed within that system. Without exception, they all felt that the educational system in their countries had not held them back. What was holding them back at more senior levels are sexist and racist ideologies, legally enshrined in some countries but in all countries deeply embedded in the cultural imaginary. However, many women also held educational curriculum and pedagogy (as well as parents) responsible for diminishing girls' and women's aspirations, of inculcating early and thus reproducing gender ideologies of male superiority and second-class status for girls and women. Thai and Malaysian women also felt strongly that education in rural or indigenous communities ought to be tailored to reflect traditional cultural values, customs, and norms, which, however, can easily keep girls tied to traditional family structures and gender roles with only limited opportunities for upward and outward mobility. One of the dangers of an ideological attachment to local tradition and custom is that "insistence on local 'purity' may well serve as excuses for a reactionary revival of older forms of oppression as women in particular have been quick to point out" (Dirlik, 1996, p. 37). Certainly, the women's comments reflected mixed messages and ambivalent attitudes towards gender equity, women's role, cultural traditionalism, and modernism.

One thing is certain, "the use of educational systems as a mechanism for achieving gender equality has clearly not been pursued by Asian governments with much energy or enthusiasm" (Vervoorn, 1998, p. 266). Moreover, comprehensive or "realistic analysis of gender roles was never undertaken in Asia" (Mazumdar, 1993, p. 16), which is evident in the relative paucity of locally authored research on gender and education issues and the lack of gender as a demographic category in census, university, or ministries of education databases and reports. Where feminist or women's groups and associations have some visible presence, such as in Singapore and Malaysia, gender analysis and political lobbying for legal reform or social programs in support of women (e.g., domestic violence) are more evident and publicized, albeit within the tolerance parameters of governments.

What unifies feminist perspectives from the south and east is the recognition that economic development everywhere in the region has been founded on the backs of women at least as much as on men but universally on the exploitation of lower educated, lower waged working women and their unwaged domestic service. As women are catching up in workforce participation and educational achievement, their wages remain below those of men; women are largely invisible in senior civic and governmental affairs, corporate boardrooms, and executive management. Asian cultural values, in many places legally enshrined, keep women tied in social and economic dependency bonds to husbands and family. Capitalism and patriarchy have always been a deadly combination for women. But in Southeast Asia, the discourse of Asian values mesh within complex political, colonial, and post-colonial histories; different development trajectories; religious and cultural core values resurgences; various historical roles and influences of Sultanate royalties, constitutional monarchies, military powers, and governments; and all coalesce in ways that put a very different ideological spin on Asian patriarchy and capitalism. And it is within these dense grids that constructs of femininity, of women's reality and status, opportunities and constraints are experienced, legislated, contested and reproduced, and enacted by the state and in the courts, by women and men, in the classroom and the boardroom, in the factory and the kitchen.


Many of the women's experiences and analyses of career impediments match those documented in the Western literature: balancing the double-day, guilt over professional aspirations and commitments that short-change family and children, feelings of having to work twice as hard for half the rewards, and so forth. Yet cultural differences are evident in regards to the politics of gender relations across a range of institutional encounters that women in the West do not experience. Cultural attitudes remain skeptical of women who socialize professionally with other male colleagues. For single women, most well into their 50s, the pressure of propriety in maintaining an 'untainted' public image in the "oriental context" is a powerful influence in shaping their professional and personal relations and public lives—"or else there will be whispers." From a Singaporean dean, well into her 50s and single, this comment:

If you are a single or divorced woman, and that's my public image, it is extremely difficult for another woman or man to accept. In the west, you can keep a boyfriend, you can go out and socialize, there may still be whispers, but in the west people tend to accept that you can have a social life without affecting the public image, but not in Singapore. If you are single, you go out with another single man, that is being talked about, immediately there will be a lot of small talk.

Two Malaysian women made similar observations:

Men and women don't really work together. If they do, people's perception is that there is something going on, something like that, which is not very nice, (deputy dean)

Yes, especially with Muslims you see—it is kind of very difficult for me to be seen with other men and things like that. I don't do all those kinds of things, (dean)

Women told of turning down research opportunities because it would involve too much time with male colleagues in their offices or in laboratories. Women spoke of fears of "being seen" with men, which would "lead to whispers," "gossip," people thinking "that something hanky-panky is going on." Single women well into their 50s said they would not attend after-hours university functions on their own let alone bring a male friend or partner, they would not "go to lunch with my Deans too often," or would avoid being seen on or off campus in the company of men: "Oh I never would dare to bring anybody. I would never dare to bring anyone as an escort or just somebody to go to a function with me, the whole town will talk" (Singaporean deputy dean).

Several Malaysian women said that it was easier to interact publicly with European males, but not "our own kind." Married women spoke of husbands who disapproved of and prohibited women working after hours, which often meant being allowed out only for graduation ceremonies where the presence of deans is mandatory. One dean spoke of the impropriety of crossing the path of the gender divide. This suggests an apt metaphor for describing yet another barrier, another subtle and invisible line of women's confinement. Containment in a zone of feminine propriety denies women access to the social encounters and practices men take for granted.

We don't go out with men for lunch or for you know, talk or golf or things like that. Women don't do that with their colleagues you see because it is simply beyond our cultural values for women to cross that path, (dean)

Historically and cross-culturally, compliance with social rules of decorum in gender relations almost always apply more harshly to and reflect on the conduct of women. In that regard, women may well pay a higher price for breaking social taboos, whereas men's conduct with and among women is usually less sanctioned. Fears among women of being seen in the wrong light is a political constraint to career mobility opportunities for Southeast Asian women that is unheard of in the West. Asian cultural rules of feminine propriety curtail women's social professional conduct, which, in turn, excludes them from networking opportunities where important information and institutional allies and deals are formed.

Filial responsibility puts pressures on men and women within the Asian family. Unmarried women, unlike their married brothers or sisters, are technically freed from child care and husband-household duties, but they are expected to look after aged parents. Filial obligations exert different costs from sons and daughters: Women provide the day-to-day emotional and routine care of elderly parents, whereas brothers, particularly first sons, are responsible for financial support. All the single women I interviewed in Singapore and Hong Kong had at least one of their parents living with them and all had live-in or part-time domestic help. The women appreciated having a live-in companion, a good and lifelong friend who also happened to be their parent, but these arrangements also come with time-consuming responsibilities. In the words of one Singaporean dean,

just because I don't have a husband and children doesn't mean I have no family. I have aged parents and that's responsibility. And because your siblings are married, they think because you are not, you look after them. You become the family babysitter.

Women spoke of having to organize care arrangements for parents that they claimed to be as if not more time-consuming, expensive, and complex than those organized by married siblings for their children, particularly when academic work frequently means travel overseas. Remaining single in a family-oriented society carries a price. Cultural ideologies and social policies shape women's choices and lifestyle options, particularly where state housing policies militate against women's independence and autonomy.

I noted earlier that in some countries governments had made some gestures throughout the 1960s and 1970s to gender equity in regards to marriage law reform, which entailed antipolygamy legislation, the legal abolition of under-age and arranged marriages. However, law, social policy, and civic regulations maintain gender-based social engineering that disadvantage women. In Singapore, women employed in the public sector are disqualified from unemployment benefits and medical benefits for their children, which are available only to fathers and husbands. The legal enshrinement of the unabashedly patriarchal principle of man-as-head-of-household supports the state's pro-family policies at a huge cost to women's rights and autonomy (Chan, 2000; Lee et al., 1999; Soin, 1996). Housing policy disqualifies single women with children from government-subsidized housing. As noted, the government provides extensive financial benefits for university-educated women who have more than two children. In higher education, sabbatical leave funds for spouses and children who accompany an academic overseas are granted only to men. A 33% enrollment ceiling for women into medical school has been in place since 1979 and remains one of the most contested issues between government and proequity reform lobbies.

Citizenship laws have long disadvantaged women. Citizenship rights have always been granted (after a 2-year residency) to foreign female nationals married to Singaporean men. However, this right was not extended to Singaporean women married to foreigners until January 1999 (Lee et al., 1999). Based on assumptions that women follow husbands, this legal provision curtails women's career decisions and, not least, constrains women's mobility in a highly mobile and global academic environment. Citizenship and residency laws in Malaysia are similarly gender biased and are the focus of ongoing lobbying by feminist lawyers and women's groups. Economic rationales of "brain drain" sustain reform arguments: "If the present law persists, we may see the departure of many highly educated and skilled women from the country for the simple reason that their husbands cannot stay. This will prove costly to our country's economy" (Ariffin, 1994, p. 131).

Malay women live "their everyday lives in a context in which the family is highly politicized" (Stivens, 2000, p. 25). The 'Asian family' discourse is strongly supported by the state and by some Muslim elements," and is counterposed to an alleged crisis in the western family, to "the 'toxic' imports of western 'culture', and is meant to provide an alternative 'Asian' path to modernity" (p. 25). Yet this Asian Islamic path to modernity, embedded as it is in a neotraditionalist Islamic vision of family and womanhood, puts a different religious and political yoke on women than it does on men. Legal inequalities that disadvantage women persist in Malaysia, where polygamy was finally outlawed in 1982 for non-Muslims under federal Family Law. Muslim Law, administered by states, allows Muslim men to have up to four wives, whereas a Muslim woman can only be married to one man. Divorce initiated by husbands requires only a declaration of repudiation (talaq) of the wife, although reconciliation provisions and various religious committee hearings are now required. Women who initiate divorce must present a litany of proof of breach of promise, abandonment, infidelity, unequal treatment among wives, or consorting with women of ill repute. Alternately, financial compensation to husbands is another option for women of independent means. Relatedly, custody of legitimate children resides with fathers, whereas women become custodians of their husband's illegitimate children (Ariffin, 1994). As noted earlier, women outnumber men in law-degree programs. One law professor explained the surge of women's enrollment, claiming that increasing numbers of bumiputera (indigenous Muslim) women study law for their own protection, not for career purposes. Because Muslim women are subject to Islamic customary as well as civil law, what better way to protect one's status, children, and assets than to have a good working knowledge of the legal system. Others hinted at the trepidations many young Muslim women today feel at the prospect of marriage: It is the de rigueur career choice for Muslim women but also one that does not guarantee economic security, rights over her children, or a place as the sole or permanent wife.

In Malaysia racial discrimination is embedded in legal-juridico discourses and social policies such as those governing civil service sector employment and higher education. Race-based policies confer a host of privileges on bumiputera Malays and erect ethnic concrete ceilings for non-Malays.

There is a constitution whereby we have to abide by, not just gender in that sense, but racial. So you see, all those holding top posts are not Chinese, not Indians but all Malays. So, being a Chinese, however good you are, you will never get a [chance] . . . the chances to be a dean will be slim, to be picked to be a dean. (Malay dean)

The few Chinese and Indian women I was able to locate expressed resentment at the social policies that reserve senior positions for bumiputera Malays. In the words of two Chinese deans: "To them [Malays] the ethnic glass ceiling doesn't exist. They don't know that it exists."

Basically the top management are men and Malays. Very few non-Malay Chinese or Indians ever get to the top. The posts and assistants they are all political. You don't have a chance to get up.

The Malay women, by contrast, seemed unaware that this ethnic ceiling was a problem for Chinese: "I have heard about it but I don't know. I don't feel that it is quite true. Here one of the Deputy Deans is Chinese. We have non-Malays as Head of Departments" (Malay head of department). When I asked Malay women about the influence of ethnicity on career mobility and opportunities, they consistently referred to the handful of non-Malays serving as deans or heads of department or else explained how most non-Malays are happy to move into the corporate business sector:

Non-Malays, they already understand the situation and they have adjusted very well. And if they feel that they cannot do well here, then they can do well somewhere else; they are doing very well in business side. (Malay dean)

And yet, having "adjusted very well" is a distinctly Malay perception for the disheartening testimony from the Chinese women was that "we don't want to go elsewhere for recognition," and nor do they see their research or career aspirations as attainable in the second-tier college or private tertiary sector. In the words of one Chinese deputy dean:

Efforts from the best brains are directed outside. It's a glass ceiling. Ethnic glass ceiling you know. You are not getting recognised and you are not going to be appointed to any senior position. You know, so why knock your head against that ceiling. So this [position] is as far as I go.

Indian and Chinese women repeatedly expressed very strong feelings and dismay about the kind of race-based privileges accorded to Muslim Malays and the disadvantages they perceived for their children and themselves: from scholarship allocations to enrollment quotas, grade distributions, and what one woman termed a racist meritocracy.

I am a double minority. I am a minority in terms of gender. I am a minority in terms of ethnicity. In meetings, I am always the minority. I think ethnicity is also a factor in appointment of senior positions, you know. As you know, they are all appointed, deans and all. (Chinese deputy dean)

In tertiary education student intake quotas, grades, graduation rates are torqued toward racial quotas: "There are many issues that involve ethnicity. The number of students who fail, who graduate, who get the top grades. If you look at the numbers of students who fail, at the bottom, a lot of them are Malays and the top are Chinese" (Chinese deputy dean). And in terms of academic appointments, as one Malay Dean admitted:

Chances are authorities at the top will look for a Malay first, whether a female or a man, and then you go to the next level. I am not sure how bad it is but you hear stories of disillusioned academics where one wonders whether because they are Indians or Chinese or because there are other reasons for them not to have a chance.

Race-based policies can divide academic women (and men), but in Islamic Malaysia, Muslim Malay women's choice of dress apparently raises a whole other set of intracultural issues around the politics of feminine representation and how these effect women's career mobility. Several of the Western-dressed Muslim Malay women told me of the substantial pressure they felt by being one of a remaining handful in their institutions not complying with the wearing of tudung (head scarf) and baju kurung (high-necked, long-sleeved tunic over long skirt). They claimed that this pressure would eventually wear them down, and they would have to give in.

You see me, I don't wear the scarf. I don't wear it because I was raised not wearing it. My mother didn't. I find it very difficult to start wearing it but if I don't, the pressure is greater for me now to wear it because almost everybody on campus is wearing it and I think the networking is better. It's better if you do. I think it would be better for some of the men to accept me as a leader if I were to wear it. (Deputy dean)

What became apparent in conversations is that women who support tudung and those still resistant are aware of the cultural pressures on Muslim women to conform: "I know I have to wear it. To get ahead and to conform. Because everybody else does. And I think the men, if I want to network, and I think because their wives also wear it so it would be a lot easier for me" (Deputy dean). Of her experience at another university, one Western-dressed deputy dean had this to say: "I have been told right to my face by one of my colleagues [at another university] that I would never be accepted there. . . . I think it is because of the men lecturers who were there. They feel comfortable if a lady is covered. They don't say it to me here but I can feel it sometimes."

In postcolonial Hong Kong, then current political winds of change had generated a whole new set of cultural and ethnic identity issues. I conducted the Hong Kong interviews 7 weeks after the July 1997 handover and everyone—from cab drivers to academics—seemed keen to talk politics and to share their optimism and anxieties with an outsider. Two Taiwanese but American-educated deans alluded to occasional feelings of social dislocation and isolation: not able to fully and fluently participate in Cantonese conversations with academics, although "I understand what is being said." They were fluent Mandarin speakers, which "is good for doing [academic] business in China," and yet both felt that they were not considered sufficiently "authentic" Hong Kong Chinese to represent their institution. In the cultural-historical context of Hong Kong where the "majority of the population has always been Chinese but brought up under a colonial regime," issues of "authenticity, you know, who is 'really' Chinese?" had been brought into new relief with the "1997 question." The ideological downgrading of Cantonese puts Taiwanese Mandarin speakers in a more privileged position, although the Taiwanese women I spoke with raised issues about their status as cultural outsiders.

One dean noted emergent shifts in perceptions and cultural valuation of a foreign education, long valued in Hong Kong but, post-1997, seen as a professional liability in some circles because of its symbolic representation as a colonial holdover. Several women felt dismay at what they perceived as a subtle push "by administration to favor hiring mainland trained Chinese academics" whose educational backgrounds are widely considered of inferior quality. They expressed unease about subtle changes in the hierarchical ordering of authenticity among the Chinese diaspora of the region as Hong Kong's political and cultural status was slipping from British to PRC rule. In one woman's view: "right now I think there is some confusion, some fear and anxiety of the mainland—of the politics and cultural influence—and how we should make our identity. It is complicated."

Other significant and distinctly Asian cultural values that can work against women are the politics of face and an ethos of patronage, connections, or guanxi (cf. Ong, 1998). Some of the women claimed that the cultural protocol of face, combined with a social debt economy of patronage, shapes social relations and identity crafting in everyday professional encounters and exerts a particular toll on women's already subordinate social status. Contesting one's senior in public forums such as committees or councils is considered inappropriate institutional conduct for it is seen to "diminish your superior's positions, his status." In the West, by contrast, speaking up, arguing against issues on principle, a point of law, or policy, or arguing in support of social justice issues are the very core skills women are encouraged to perform to get recognized, to demonstrate leadership, and so on. In Asian contexts, the rule of face prohibits contestations from subordinates, which extends to expectations of compliance within systems of institutional patronage whereby duty to senior personnel "who groomed you" tends to limit autonomous action and decision making. In other words, "your tongue is tied for a good part of your career and basically you toe the line" (Chinese Malay). The crafting of enabling relationships requires compliance and subservience to those who groomed the subordinate and skillful cultivation of connections: "it's like you must be able to get certain people to like you to be able to get, say, a scholarship or a signature to go and do your sabbatical."

In the words of one Singaporean dean: "If you are there at all and got these positions, it was some male who recommended or promoted you, so there is this sense of obligation and loyalty." There is always a payback, a debt, an obligation, and eternal gratitude to those who supported one's institutional advancement or promotion. Failure to pay due respect to the system of obligations and hierarchies of subservience extends to loss of face for both senior and junior players in such relationships. For women, who are more likely to be sponsored by senior males, rules of face within patriarchal hierarchies can be particularly debilitating in their attempts to get ahead: Institutional gender and sexual politics cast suspicion on male-female collegial relationships, and cultural expectations of docile, loyal, and subservient femininity stipulate that "women are not supposed to come on too strongly, so you hold back, not wanting to offend your superiors" (Singaporean dean). Women's professional skills and intellectual contributions, their career aspirations, managerial or administrative skills, and potential have to be managed within a context where discourses of equal opportunity are publicly mapped against the ideological rhetoric of meritocratic opportunity but mediated by and exercised from within cultural value systems that reflect particular Asian forms of patriarchy, whether at the level of the state, law, or the academy.

Unlike mentoring practices in the West, career advancement for women (and men) is achieved through patronage and successor grooming, which incur relationships built on dependency bonds of loyalty and obligation. The politics of loyalty and obligation further reinforce status and power differentiations between superior and subordinate, which, when overlaid with the gender politics of "the so-called Asian traditional relationship of male superiority" (Koh, 1996, p.30), suggests a much more relational and historically shaped concept of career, career development, and aspirations. That is, it suggests a career trajectory strongly mediated by the need to craft and nurture relationships over time with potential and influential patrons. However, as the women explained, demonstrating long-term loyalty and self-sacrifice to one's senior is no guarantee of promotion. Yet once a position of power is attained, loyalty to one's sponsor, and obligations for having been groomed remain powerful influences on future conduct, performance, and management decisions because cultural norms and expectations require a retrospective payback of sorts: a demonstration of one's worthiness of patronage and consequent status attainment. Repeatedly the women emphasized the need to be mindful of one's superiors (who tend to be male), and hence women do not take initiative to promote their academic or intellectual abilities for it would be seen to reflect badly on one's superior. Instead, "you bring up a good idea to your superior behind closed doors."

In an analysis of Malaysian feminism, Maznah Mohamad (1994) likens women's "maneuvers" through this minefield of equal opportunity, systemic male privilege, and discrimination against woman as a form of "gaming." She writes that out of this "interplay of access and exclusion" women are led to believe that "there is nothing to stop a woman from achieving what she wants, provided she is clever enough to tread carefully and not upset the 'unchangeable' norms of a gendered society" (p. 135). In the face of social and cultural barriers women "have to be resourceful to know how to 'negotiate,' 'manoeuvre,' 'bargain,' 'manipulate,' or 'manage' the situation for one's benefit. These gaming strategies operate within the rules of the male privileging system" (p. 135). In other words, patriarchy writes the rules and enacts them with ease for they are the mirror image of their authors. Women's lifetime project is to learn and play by the rules, and because they are not of their own making, they either "reread the frames by which they do their lives" (PuruShotam, 1998, p. 161) or else sneak around the rules and maneuver and manipulate the game to find a gap, a small space within which to assert an already culturally mediated and contested "I."

And yet, it is not only men, as the women revealed, who collude "to keep women down," who downgrade women or take credit for their ideas and work. Career impediments are enacted intergenerationally by women and men. As the women testified, if "its women-women, it's more ugly" and often "worse." Competition among women is seen as different in kind from male competitiveness: "Men envy in a competitive sense; men envy other men because they are more intelligent whereas women envy because they are better looking." In Hong Kong, several women were very explicit about women's lack of support for each other, in some instances characterized as open warfare and "very vicious." "Women are most unsupportive, most unkind. They oppose other women. There are so few women and when they get in power, they are certainly not helpful to other women." Tensions and jealousies between women can be "worse, much worse . . . such as that I may lose my job." In the words of one 35-year-old deputy dean in Hong Kong:

[Women] don't need a reason, maybe just that they don't like your looks, you are younger, taller, you are perceived as academically threatening, it could be as irrational as that but these are the things that matter to women, especially those in a very traditional mould. And certainly women in my generation suffer a lot of that.

Over the years, many of my women friends and colleagues have shared similar stories but always in private. Yet Western research on women and organizational cultures has been largely silent on tensions and conflicts among women (cf. Hirsch & Fox Keller, 1990; Looser Be Kaplan, 1997). This, I believe, has one-dimensionalized the concept of glass ceiling and, perhaps unintentionally, constructed a victim narrative around subjugated women and perpetrator men. Women's complicity in glass ceiling politics seems to be a taboo subject. On this issue, however, the women in this study were candid and forthright, explaining why women self-select out at more junior ranks and how senior women can misuse power and be just as divisive and unsupportive of women as men. Patriarchy isn't just about men—the politicians, generals, mullahs, academics, captains of industry, or media—but is powerfully embodied in and enacted by hegemonized women. Patriarchy is indeed a global form but locally inflected, encoded and enacted. Relatedly, the Asian values or Islamic values resurrection is unquestionably the work of ruling patriarchs across the region. But women are as much its coauthors and supporters as its critics.


My attempt here has been to insert cultural difference into debates about women in higher education management. Admittedly, this paper has provided mere snapshots of what is a far more complex picture. Arguably, the insights of a dozen women in each of four countries cannot be taken as representative. And yet they do tell us something about the way local cultural and gender ideologies blend within larger global discourses circulating throughout higher education sectors.

Once we factor cultural specificity into concepts of patriarchy and glass ceiling it becomes apparent that "there is no single barrier or 'glass ceiling' that can be "shattered" (Heward, 1996, p. 17). The women who have spoken here have given us insights into how women's career trajectories and opportunities are shaped by the intersection of cultural values and structures and legal-juridico systems of the state. The glass ceilings that women in this study have experienced are shaped by place-specific sociopolitical, economic, and cultural factors framed within specific postcolonial legacies, which do not neatly fit into the one-dimensional Western conceptualization of glass ceiling as solely enacted by men or by a generalized patriarchy.

Many of the women's experiences and interpretations in this study resonate with research on women in higher education in Western and other non-Western societies. Women universally claim that the double-day of professional responsibilities and child care and household duties is a difficult balancing act. For many women, childbearing and rearing often occur in the early years of their careers, which can impede the development of research productivity. Women also agree that there are gendered differences in career aspirations and opportunities and that the culture of the academy is shaped around masculinist values and ways of doing academic business. Most, although not all, women are aware of old boys clubs in their institutions that are generally closed to women. Exclusion from powerful senior networks limits women's visibility and access to crucial information, influential alliances, and promotional prospects.

Whether in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or Thailand, organizational culture and practices, though unmistakably male according to the women, are inflected with "the Confucian bind," with Asian values and ways of doing things. All the women agreed that Asian values or Asian culture espouse a specific concept of femininity. In (Islamic) Malaysia, (Buddhist) Thailand, or (Confucian) Singapore and Hong Kong, women's roles and conduct in public life are framed by cultural expectations that still place a premium on women as wives, mothers, and homemakers (Edwards & Roces, 2000) and on women's conduct as "subdued," "quiet," and "withdrawn." In such a cultural milieu, it can be argued that Western solutions to reversing the gender imbalance in higher education management by advocating a more individualist and self-promotional approach to breaking glass ceilings, is seen by Southeast Asian women as inappropriate. Yet there is also the perception that a new generation of young academic women are more career oriented, competitive, and ambitious.

There are no easy or simple conclusions to draw from the issues the women in this study have spoken about. Gender inequality at the most senior ranks of higher education persists. And yet academic women (and men) hold steadfast to notions that women should not receive special treatment or exemptions and that hard work allows anyone to achieve in their land of meritocratic opportunity. Senior academics circulate on global networks, engage in global-speak, critique globalization yet display many of the characteristics of the new global cosmopolitan elite. They defend and romanticize the local as much as they retranslate it through Western theoretical and analytic paradigms. They contest Westernization in the symbolic shorthand of CNN or "McDonaldization" platitudes, and yet they are its biggest consumer class in their countries. They argue strongly for the retention of local values, tradition, and schooling and yet pride themselves on their overseas degrees and send their own children to prestigious overseas prep schools and universities.

Although these positions and choices may seem contradictory in the classic Hegelian sense of opposing, incommensurate ideological positions or social practices, I would argue instead that they are indicative of the kind of heterogeneity of values, beliefs, and practices constitutive of subjectivity in new times. Talking about identity formation, Stuart Hall (1994, pp. 394-395) has argued that identity is crafted in "the continuous play of history, culture and power" that seep through us and that we remake and remix. There is no pure local place or discursive space in which people enact singular, hermetically sealed cultural identities and practices. In that regard, the women's narratives illustrate in part the push-pull glocal dynamics at the level of the subject. Their stories are about working out one's choices and course of action within constraints and opportunities, within localities of place and histories, and within relationships here, there, and intergenerationally.

Many of the women who participated in this study had already silently broken through long-established barriers and pursued goals not commonplace among the majority of young women in their day. That is, some 20 or more years ago, women now in their late 40s and 50s made the choice to undertake the rigors of PhD study, some with young children in tow. They worked their way up through junior lectureships into middle-level administration, all the while raising young families and some, eventually, ending up as single parents following divorce—still a social stigma in most Asian cultures, especially for women. Few women had any support structures or management training, many felt alone and isolated as the first women in their institutions to hold senior posts, many felt ignored and overly scrutinized by skeptical male colleagues, and yet most could claim that "we didn't do too badly!"


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CARMEN LUKE is reader in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Queensland. Her research interests include feminist pedagogy and women in higher education, new media, literacy, and cultural change. She is coeditor of Discourse and Teaching Education, and her latest book is Globalization and Women in Academia: North/West-South/East (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 3, 2002, p. 625-662
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10843, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:15:14 PM

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  • Carmen Luke
    University of Queensland
    E-mail Author
    CARMEN LUKE is reader in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Queensland. Her research interests include feminist pedagogy and women in higher education, new media, literacy, and cultural change. She is coeditor of Discourse and Teaching Education, and her latest book is Globalization and Women in Academia: North/West-South/Wast (Lawrence Erlbaum Associate, 2001).
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