Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Expanding Female Leadership in Mongolian Politics and Businesses

30 Sep 2016

For centuries, Mongolian women have played a central role in their society, holding positions of power ever since the Mongol Empire – hundreds of years before their counterparts in Europe, or elsewhere in Asia.

Today, women remain integral to Mongolia’s economy, society and politics. In the home, they are often breadwinners, as well as caretakers. At work, they are increasingly influential, partly because they are often better educated, with more Mongolian girls completing school than boys. But partly also because their attitudes and those of their families have been changing as well.  

In the recent parliamentary elections, the number of women in Mongolia’s parliament jumped to 17.1 percent from 14.5 percent previously, with 13 out of 76 female parliamentarians.

“This brings Mongolia’s female political representation closer to the world and Asia-Pacific averages of 22.9% and 18.8% respectively,” said Beate Trankmann, Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Mongolia.

“This is promising progress for a country that transitioned to democracy just over a quarter of a century ago and an important step towards greater gender equality in Mongolia,” she added.

To reach full equality however, further change is needed in perceptions and traditional stereotypes about division of roles between men and women. In addition to these, there are number of additional barriers for female parliamentarians and candidates.

“What IRI has found through our public opinion research and through focus group discussions nationwide earlier this year was that women face challenges in terms of party support, campaign financing and to actually find the time to go out and campaign for office”, according to Ashleigh Whelan, Country Director of the International Republican Institute (IRI).

Changes to the election law this year reduced the quota for female candidates to be nominated by political parties from 30 percent to 20 percent, leaving fewer spots for women in each party. The shift from a hybrid to majoritarian system could also make it harder for female candidates in future, Whelan added.

In a bid to highlight the political gender divide and encourage more women to run, a national forum on “Women’s Participation at the Decision-Making Level” was held before the elections with 529 female leaders from across the country. It was organized by the UNDP-implemented project “Capacity Strengthening of Local Self-Governing Bodies” in collaboration with the Parliament Secretariat, the Women’s Caucus of the Parliament, IRI and the Government of Canada.

However, to support the political careers of women, greater reinforcement is also needed from their families and husbands.

 “For us, it’s more of a challenge. Encouraging women to get into politics is quite tough,” said Bulgantuya Khurelbaatar, now Deputy Finance Minister and a mother of two.

“The political world is not a 9-6 job. You could be out in the countryside, travelling any day – it’s very much unplanned, which discourages women to participate. I’m grateful to have supportive parents from both sides and a supportive husband.”

For many women, competing demands at home indeed add further challenges. The UNDP’s National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2015 found Mongolian women spend twice as much time on household duties. This forces them to choose between their families and a career, or taking on a ‘double burden’. This hampers their ability to participate in the labour market, with only 56.6 percent of women active in Mongolia’s workforce, versus 69.3 percent of men, according to the NHDR.

It may also explain why across the public and private sectors, fewer Mongolian women hold decision-making positions. In the civil service, the report shows just 26.6 percent of state secretaries are women, while only 30 percent of middle managers and 15 percent of senior managers in Mongolia are women. They also earn just 85 percent of what their male counterparts make.

In the recently released 2016 Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), Mongolia ranks 58th out of 144 countries, slipping from 42nd place in 2014. This puts it behind Estonia (22nd) and Bulgaria (41st) – but ahead of many others, such as the Russian Federation (75th), Hungary (101st), Japan (111th) and South Korea (116th).

Hope for greater gender equality in Mongolia’s economy is offered in female entrepreneurs. 29-year old Khulan Davaadorj, Founder and CEO at Natural Essentials LLC, produced Mongolia’s first organic skincare brand, Lhamour. For her, overcoming a patriarchal structure in her previous company was a key factor in starting her own business. 

“When I worked in my previous job, I did see a big difference between me trying to get my message across and men not taking it seriously. I think that’s other main reason why I started my own thing,” she said, adding “I do see a high leap forward in terms of women starting businesses.”

Lhamour now employs 32 people, of which 28 are women, including new graduates and former housewives. She also distributes other Mongolian handmade products, including silk scarves and leather goods.

“They have to be genuinely made here, not in China, because that’s a huge issue in Mongolia,” she said. “95 percent of what we sell is made by women.”

Globally, female entrepreneurs often demonstrate more social and environmental responsibility. Lhamour only uses recycled paper, no plastic bags and produces zero waste – every raw material becomes an end product, earning it the ‘Most Responsible SME in Asia’ award this year by the MORS Research Institute this year.

A greater role for women in Mongolia’s economy and politics is in the interest of all Mongolians – male and female.  When women are at the table where decisions are made, issues that they care about and that are usually close to families well-being – such as healthcare, education or gender based violence – are more likely to get discussed and addressed.

Achieving that calls for more gender-sensitive labour policies from the government, such as flexi-time, supportive daycare environments and equal retirement ages for women, to protect their ability to continue contributing to the economy if they chose. In Mongolia, the low retirement age of 55 years for women with multiple children is intended to respect their contribution to society, but could also remove them from the jobs market prematurely.

Aside from policy shifts, greater female leadership in Mongolia also requires zero tolerance to discriminatory practices from companies and organizations. It will also take greater public awareness efforts to challenge gender expectations from all stakeholders, including the media, as well as more support for working women within their families, such as sharing of household responsibilities.

With women constituting 50.48% of population, Inclusive, sustainable development that leaves no one behind in Mongolia can only be possible only if  all women and men are an equal part of it. 

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