Current Affairs

One woman’s take on the “high bridge”

by Nicole Tan Lee Koon

Women all around the world celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th of March, 2012. Let me share a few inspiring stories before I share my two sens’ worth on the new dynamics of feminism.



She was the first female President of Iceland, a single mom, a breast cancer survivor who had had one of her breasts removed. During one campaign, one of her male contenders implied that she couldn’t become President, because she was “half a woman” (as one of her breasts had been removed). That night she won the election not just because of his crappy (and sexist) behaviour but she came back and retorted, “Well, I’m not going to breastfeed the Icelandic nation, I’m going to lead it!



I guess today one might call her an activist or a rabble rouser! As a physical education instructor at the university during her college days, she fought for equal pay for women. She was only paid $20 a month to lead classes, yet a man was being paid $40 a month simply to take the roll (as a replacement teacher) in her classes ! She couldn’t believe it! So, she insisted on equal pay! When it was not forthcoming,  she just quit! The university president rehired her at $40 a month, which was great except for one thing. He then raised the man’s salary to $60! Guest what? She resigned again! However, this time she did not return to teaching until the university board of regents signed an employment contract with her which guaranteed her $60 a month too!



Yours truly wanted to be a lawyer just like my cousin, Tan Moh Huat. He was nine years my senior.  My STPM results did not permit me to apply for law at the local universities. My teachers asked me to apply for other courses.  My father thought that I was not up to it. He insisted that I work in a bank (stable job). At that time he was earning barely enough to support the household, what more to pay for my tuition fees if I did law. I remember when A&W opened in Seremban, my dad brought us there. My sisters and I had to share one box of french fries.

Yet I insisted on reading law. There were not many private colleges available in 1990.  I found the cheapest college possible. It was a tuition centre in the seedy part of Jalan Ipoh. I did well despite the unconducive environment. I was then allowed to transfer to a better college in Leboh Ampang. I was conferred a Second Class Upper LLB (Bachelor in Laws), which I achieved in 1994 together with 17 others from the rest of the Malaysia. I obtained my LLM (Master in Laws) in 2009 from University of Malaya. Hence, I started my legal journey.

Well, enough of me !

II.           NEW DYNAMICS

Women have come a long way since 19th of March, 1911 (note : not 8th of March) when the first International Women’s Day was launched in Copenhagen by the Conference of the Working Women headed by Clara Zetkin. Actually, the first national Women’s Day was observed in the United States following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America on the 28th of February, 1910.

100 years ago, women were still not allowed to vote in most countries. 100 years ago, there were no women in public offices as Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected in 1916. 100 years ago, there were no women leaders in the corporate world.

Fast forward to 2012. Now, women are allowed to vote everywhere in the “known”  world. Now, out of the 192 United Nations member states, observe the following:

There are 11 women heads of state (excluding the Queen Elizabeth of UK, Queen Margrethe of Denmark and Queen Beatrix of Netherlands). Tarja Halonen’s term as the President of Finland ended on 1st March 2012. There are three women representatives of heads of state, nine women heads of government (a special mention for the gorgeous Yingluck of Thailand) and one female Acting Prime Minister for Guinea-Bissau.

We now have 24 (up from only 15 last year!) women Chief Executive Officers out of 1000 Fortune companies.

In Malaysia, female representation in the Dewan Rakyat is a miserly 10.4% (23 women Members of Parliament out of 222) and in the State Assemblies women make up only 7.4% of the total assembly persons 41 out of 606). Women are better represented in the Dewan Negara though, 25.7% are women. The disparity in numbers are quite telling and it is opined that it is a stark reflection of gender bias.

Therefore, it is incumbent on our beloved leaders at the Central Executive Committee (CEC) to field more females in the coming General Elections. The proposed quota of 30% is just a number. Most importantly, the CEC must field not just any female but the right and qualified female to be a candidate. DAP can lead the way to break this monopoly of the “old boys’ club” as women make up more than 50% of Malaysia’s population and more than 50% of voters are women.

Why is there such a disparity and discrimination?

Hanna Rosin, an American journalist disliked the term “glass ceiling” and opted to use the term “high bridge” instead.  To Hanna, “glass ceiling” puts men and women in a antagonistic relationship with each other, because men are always the devious tricksters up there who put the glass ceiling. Women are always below the glass ceiling. Also, shattering the glass ceiling must be a terrible phrase.

Hanna was of the opinion that we are going through an amazing and unprecedented moment where the power dynamics between men and women are shifting rapidly and that in many of the places where it counts the most, women are in control.  On the other hand, Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook is of the opinion that  there are three reasons why there are too few women leaders in the world. Firstly, women systematically underestimate their own abilities. Data has shown that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. Secondly,  homemakers are not treated as equal partners. Lastly, women tends to sacrifice in order to start a family.


How far have we climbed the high bridge? Gone are the days of bra-burning and mass protest for equal rights. We believe that the struggle is still very real, looking at the data. However, the good news is that some of us have managed to climb the high bridge. Some of us are crossing the bridge side by side with the men and some of us are overtaking the men.

I am part of the non-governmental organization called Soroptimist International, which is a combination of two Latin words “soror” and “optima”. These are women at their best, working to help other women to be the best. Let us help each other to climb the high bridge. Remember : “one small step for a woman, a giant leap for womanhood.” Let us celebrate womanhood with class and passion in order to for women to be educated, enlightened and empowered.

*The writer is a lawyer practicing in Seremban, a budding politician, an avaricious reader and an epicurean.

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