How far do the ripples go when women win?
There’s a message of encouragement women are often told: Take up space. Do not be afraid to take up space. In the many versions this piece of advice comes in, there’s that of late American politician Shirley Chisholm, who famously said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” It was affirmed, in another version, by the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that “women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
Celebrating Women’s Month again, it’s a good time to reflect on this message.
Women have made strides; in 2021, they are taking up space. They are finding themselves in places where decisions are being made. In fields like commerce, public governance, academe, media, there are women leaders. Standing on the shoulders of those who came before them, they, in turn, ensure that the women of the future can continue to make inroads in male-dominated industries.
And what for? Women contribute a unique point of view that their male counterparts might never in their lifetime come to realize. So for women, this act of showing up, of taking up space, of being part of the conversation means having a hand in how society is shaped. And society certainly would be better for it. Proof of this would be the women rising to the occasion in the time of COVID-19. That seat at the table explains, in part, why countries with female leaders have responded well to the pandemic.
It wouldn’t at all be far-fetched to say that a society that protects and nurtures women (the way it does men) protects and nurtures itself. In the 2017 docuseries WOMAN with Gloria Steinem, this is the one thread that runs through the tapestry of the societies visited by the esteemed feminist. She concluded: “From small villages to whole nations, we now know that the well-being of women determines the well-being of society.” Ultimately, to Steinem, “the greatest indicator of the world’s stability, wealth and safety is the status of women.”
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So on the surface, it may appear simply as leveling the playing field. Men winning, then women winning, too. But it’s also about what comes next: what women are willing to do differently, once they’re in, that triggers almost a domino effect of some form of good. The Philippines’ own Meggie Ochoa is a prime example. In 2019, she won the gold medal for jiu-jitsu at the Southeast Asian Games. But apart from competing, she’s used her momentum and her place in the world of martial arts to spearhead initiatives like Fight To Protect. The movement’s Project S.A.F.E. (Support and Awareness to Fight Exploitation) is one that aims to care for children who’ve been subjected to online sexual exploitation. Jiu-jitsu here is just one of the many ways Fight to Protect empowers and rehabilitates victims.
Even in industries where male dominance is less apparent (in fashion and beauty, men still comprise the upper echelons of top companies), breaking the glass ceiling is far from a mission accomplished.
Instead of finding ways to join the ranks, however, there are cases where women decide to forge their own paths altogether. The living out of Chisholm’s advice to bring a folding chair. Women like Float Swimwear’s Tracianne Estrada and Colourette Cosmetics’ Nina Ellaine Dizon-Cabrera are beacons in this game, each one having a successful business under her belt.
There might not be anything revolutionary about a one-piece swimsuit or liquid highlighter, but it’s here where that difference in perspective plays a crucial role. A woman at the helm causes a shift in how women are spoken to, how women’s needs and wants are addressed, how women are rewired to put themselves at the center of a more empowered narrative. Who better to empathize with women, anyway, than women? With Float, Estrada creates swimwear that goes beyond the “look hot” shtick that does sell because, quite evidently, sex sells. But the male gaze does not exist in the Float Swimwear universe. That alone is a win. Beauty brand Colourette Cosmetics, meanwhile, is the vehicle with which founder and CEO Dizon-Cabrera takes the space she has occupied and further pries it wide open. In the galaxy of Colourette Cosmetics, there are no molds to fit into or rigid rules to abide by. This inclusivity, it should be noted, was not just a band-aid haphazardly patched onto the brand because of on-trend calls for self-love or diversity. Colourette was born out of the fundamental need for that seat at the table.
In the domains of policymakers and healthcare professionals, whose decisions the fates of entire societies rest on, women in significant positions are needed just as much. This calls to attention the type of leadership the country does have in Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros and physician Dr. Gia Sison.
While caring may appear to be built into their job descriptions, these leaders draw strength from their unique experiences as women to channel that care into action. Hontiveros, chair of the Senate Committee on Women, has always championed women in the policies she sponsors. There’s the Safe Spaces Act, which seeks to address “gender–based sexual harassment in streets, public spaces, online, workplaces, and educational and training institutions,” and the controversial Divorce Bill, just to start. And it’s here that Hontiveros continues to use her position of privilege to advocate for those who could gain from her platform and her fighting power. “We can fight for things that do not directly affect us,” she once said. “It’s called empathy.”
Dr. Gia Sison knows something, too, about seeing her seat at the table as a platform, a soapbox. She has spent a good portion of her medical career advocating for mental health and, as a survivor herself, raising awareness on breast cancer. On the former, it’s obvious that her candor and constant reassurance are what remove the stigma surrounding mental health. It certainly helps that the dialogue created by Sison is out in the open for anyone to find, accessible on her social media. This is crucial considering that of all issues where women may historically be disproportionately at a disadvantage, mental health is where the scales tip. Statistics reveal that in the US, for example, “men are less likely than women to seek help for depression, substance abuse, and stressful life events.” Through Sison’s very felt, visible presence online, she becomes a kind of lifeline to anyone who needs it, regardless of gender.
The hope is that beyond Women’s Month, women continue to take up space the way Ochoa, Estrada, Dizon-Cabrera, Hontiveros and Sison have. That they continue to hold the door open for one another to reveal something already confirmed: when women win, society does, too.
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Art Matthew Ian Fetalver