Gender Roles and Ideologies in South East Asian Countries


The aim of this research paper on “Gender roles in south east Asian countries” has been explained with case study examples. This research topic has been narrowed down and specifically area of female roles vs. male roles has been discussed in employment. The countries chosen in case study example are low income countries where females play a major role in job market. The aim was to highlight that how gender roles are different in these countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Philippine and Malaysia. The countries selected are low income countries. There have been discussions over how these economies are dependent on female employment and in what ways there are individual, societal and economic benefits. Moreover there has been discussion of conventional roles and how they have changed. In traditional times women in Malaysia were the domestic workers only but in modern world they are rebellious to this notion and they are now participant in economic and political growth of country equivocally to males. Media have also been slightly discussed because it has a major impact over how they portray gender roles. They influence the people’s mind and gender role stereotyping.

Introduction to gender roles

Gender is a term that is often confused with the term “sex”. Sex is based on biological differences and gender is based on social. Gender roles are the expectations each individual have to fulfil. These expectations are based on the values of society and their beliefs. These roles are created from the interaction of individuals and their environments. This distinction of gender roles was done by the sociologist Ann Oakley in 1972 (Amy M. Blackstone, 2003).

The early westerners believed that females have more nurturing nature and that’s why they must look after their families and males on the other hand are more physically strong that’s why they must work outside to earn a living. This is the traditional view that shows clear distinction between males and females.

Introduction of South East Asia

South East Asian countries include: Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Brunei and Timor-Leste. South East Asian countries have a total population of 645,443,982(as of 12th March). The distinctive feature of this area is its cultural diversity and traditions. The most common religions found in this region are Islam and Buddhism.

The aim of this report is to study gender roles in perspective of South East Asian countries. This paper will analyse in detail the female and male roles and why are they different and unequal with supporting case studies and examples. Moreover, the report will also analyse that due to the differences found there are serious repercussions that are faced by the individuals.

South East Asia has mix of income economies. The most richest countries are Singapore and Brunei, middle income are Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and low income are Myanmar, Timor-Leste, Cambodia and Laos.

According to this figure Vietnam have GDP per capita of $3620, Philippines have $4380, Indonesia has $4730 and Thailand has $9820. These figures show that these countries are becoming middle income nations (William Wilson, 2016).

Thailand has seen stark growth in its GDP and exports. They have grown by five to six per cent. Vietnam has also seen stark growth of five per cent in the last two decades (William Wilson, 2016). The commonality found among these economies is that they are heavily dependent on their labour force for GDP growth and they are growing economies of South East Asia.  

History of female roles in the 19th century in South East Asia

During the nineteenth century, sue to the increased European involvement, all regions of South East Asia except Thailand was under the Europeans invasion. In many parts of work, women were employed as cheap labours and they were recruited on the agricultural lands of tea, sugar, rubber and tobacco. Males on the other hand became the head of the family. This gave males a leading position in the society and the preference of sons over daughters grew overtime.

From the late nineteenth century patriot developments created crosswise over Southeast Asia. Male pioneers concentrated on political autonomy, however literate females were similarly worried with polygamy, separation and money related duties of males. Generally, in any case, politicized ladies acknowledged the male disagreements that “female” concerns ought to be postponed until after autonomy was accomplished. However in spite of dynamic association in hostile to pioneer developments, here and there as contenders, yet more frequently as writer and journalists, ladies were seen as helpers instead of accomplices. Such mentalities were as yet apparent in the freedom developments that detonated after the surrender of the Japanese, who involved the majority of Southeast Asia in the vicinity of 1942 and 1945.

After World War II flagged the end of European expansionism in Southeast Asia, Hypothetically, the free expresses that developed throughout the following 15 years were focused on sex fairness, yet this has once in a while been converted into reality. As of late the quantity of ladies holding government office has expanded, particularly in neighbourhood government, yet just in the Philippines has female portrayal in national government transcended by 10 per cent. Today, when ladies do figure out how to enter the political field, they frequently get themselves underestimated in a male-ruled culture, with genuine power staying in men’s grasp. The couple of people who have achieved the most astounding political workplaces, (for example, President in the Philippines and Indonesia) have done as such on the grounds that they are the girl or spouse of an acclaimed man. They have not gotten to be backers of ladies’ issues, for this would hazard estranging their male partners or the male electorate.

Discussion of female gender roles in South East Asian countries

South East Asian female roles will be discussed in three different ways.

Firstly, the discussion on their employment status and why they are allowed to work outside their countries. Secondly, what is the level of literacy found among them? Thirdly, matters related to marriage that how far females control decision of marriage.

Female employment in South East Asia

How economic differences in regions have created differences in female jobs?

It must be noted that differences in the economic development of the countries in the region also accounts for the differences in the roles. Laos, Timor- Leste, Cambodia are the poorly developed nations whereas Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are developed and advanced.  The belief of women employment is still in these societies but females are still marginalized in terms of unequal pay as compared to men. They are workers on agricultural lands and are also used for drug trafficking and domestic abuse. This is prevalent in poor nations. However females of Philippines, Thailand are also very crucial part of labour force. Since, these economies are more “export-focused” that’s why females work over-seas in many Middle East and European countries as domestic workers and nurses.  Due to the advantage of females in giving the remittances to the economy, many governments are working towards training and development sector. Females of Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei are more educated than male counterparts ( Barbara Watson Andaya).

In Cambodia females work domestically as hair dressers, fruit vendors, and cigarette and petrol sellers, shop assistants and manicurists (Bernadette P.Resurreccion).  According to the report females constitute 63% of informal jobs which shows that they are under paid and marginalized. They are not reported that’s why government agencies fail to take into account policies for them.  Thailand’s and Vietnam industries employ females for recycling of waste, street waste pickers and shrimp farm workers.

Migration has been a common phenomenon in south East Asia. Mostly women are found to be migrating across countries in response to rapid industrialisation. There are various factors responsible for this. Firstly the growth tourism industry and service sector have seen a boom which have created demand for female workers. Secondly, South East Asian females are hardworking and they belief that migration is the best option for survival. Thirdly, females don’t have to face many cultural barriers like Middle Eastern countries.  Fourthly, the growth of social media has led to intensified growth of connections and job creation for females (Bernadette P.Resurreccion).

Case study example of Female “Sex Workers” in Thailand

The phenomenal growth of service and tourism industry has led to creation of jobs such as “sex workers”. Poverty has been the major driving force for this. The elder daughters of family who belong to rural areas or those who have lost their husbands, that are low skilled usually pursue this job because working in this industry makes them wealthy.  According to a report by “National Economic and Social Development Board of Thailand” around eight million people earn US$ 45 per year through this. Thai culture encourages daughters to sacrifice to bring income for household and they are major supporters to their family (Patricia Green, 2001).  Due to the exploitation of females as sex workers they are affected by diseases such as HIV Aids. This job has been able to provide higher amount of income to females in a very short term. The foreign tourists pay large sums of money to these workers and that’s the major reason why this industry has been flourishing but as discussed above at the cost of female exploitation.

Female employment in Thailand Manufacturing units

Females in Thailand are major employees in low wage manufacturing jobs in factory units. It has turned out to be more articulated in the decade after the starting of another monetary improvement approach of export related development and females have been dominating in migration from for a very long while. Thailand have emerged as one of the cheap labour economies that’s why there are many manufacturing plants set up in Thailand that majorly employ female labours. This interest for female specialists, particularly youthful labourers, was essentially because of their apparent attractive attributes, which included being compliant, non-aggressive, and being inclined to manufacturing plant work, by virtue of their agile fingers and great eyesight. While the related separation has declined in a few occupations, it is as yet an across the board wonder that adds to ladies’ lower pay (Kanchana Tangchonlatip, 2006).

Home based female employment in Thailand

In Thailand it has been found that females are part of labour force before and after marriage. They have then added burden of domestic responsibilities after marriage. Most of the females have started working from home. There has been a trend of three fourth females out of total labour force working from home as compared to one-fourth males. Females use their houses for producing artificial flowers, baskets, leather goods, metal accessories, food, and wood products. According to the statistics found on the (NSO) National Statistical Office, females were 337,526 as compared to 102,275 males (Kamolrat Intaratat, Nov 2016).   The introduction of information and communication technology (ICT) have led to creation of jobs and led to women empowerment. There is marginalisation of females in the labour market. The participation of females in the work force has added an additional burden on them. Usage of ICT may add the burden rather than reduction.

The home based female workers are waged home workers who mostly do most of the end products production and they are not main users of technology. Thirdly, females were previously affected by the masculinity of technology that was more male friendly and females lack skills to use it but now due to the government intervention in terms of training females to use ICT in better ways.

Majority of home workers are married as 69% of females are married. They range from the age of 13 years to 80 years old females. The reason why are they forced to become homepreneurs is that they face problems of “absent” husbands who don’t earn the living and are fully dependant on their wives income. Moreover today in Thailand many females believe in the traditional sayings that good wives are those who work to meet the needs of their family.

Home based workers are benefitted by flexible timings and their pays are considerably better from the females earning in low level work at manufacturing units. They felt that the income from factory work is too low to send their children to schools. The females are also helped by other family members in their business. Males market and distribute the products to the market. Daughters help in sewing and keeping accounting and financial track record whereas sons do the inventory management. This can be clearly seen that division of responsibilities have been according to gender. The skills learned are from very little formal education. Mostly these skills have been acquired from their ancestors and previous jobs in factories.

As per the government policies announced in 2015, government have developed a model over which ICT works to make the work digitized. The focus is on hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure, service infrastructure, digital economy promotion and digital society promotion. Thailand has been ranked as 60th out of 145 countries in the gender equality ratio calculated by World Economic Forum.  ICT have benefitted the progress of home based venture in many ways as more than 200 women have been trained over how to do effective marketing, communication skills, how to use social media, financial management on the software’s and how to provide customized online sales service to customers.

Moreover there have been “Massive Open Online courses (MOOCs)” (Kamolrat Intaratat, Nov 2016) on business communication, smartphone usage and photography. These female workers today use the mobile phone technology such as Viber, Line, Skype to communicate freely with their clients and workers. Eventually the introduction of ICT has alleviated the quality of lives of many female entrepreneurs and their social status has been uplifted.

Case study example of Philippine female domestic workers

One of the feminist sociologists argues that there are two reasons that how gender have shaped this process. Firstly, it have led to “migrant heroism” which represents female workers as martyrs for the nation and sacrificing. Moreover, this makes female Philippians’ as radicalized and gendered and the most prudent form of foreign labour. There has been a gender crisis due to migration of females. In the 1980’s migration of female outweigh than males. The migration of females has led female abuse as in September 1991, one of the workers Sioson died at the age of 22 years. She had been a victim of abuse and violence.

This event led to a discussion in media that due to female migrations there are problems of family misunderstandings. According to the survey conducted named as “Public attitudes towards female overseas workers: implications for Philippine migration policy” female workers are exposed to a lot of risks due to the nature of jobs.  Moreover it is believed that females’ migration leads to “value disorientation”. These families are affected by psychological and emotional traumas.

Women in Philippines from middle class families are gaining the tertiary and secondary education and they are working in the administrative jobs (Anne Booth, 2016).

Traditionally females in Philippines were supposed to do the domestic household tasks. Although female contribute to total household expenses there still lies friction between their male counter parts. Males feel that when females earn it challenges male’s positions. Many males feel embarrassed if female works.

Males are also hesitant to marry educated females and this is because they fear that they will be dominated by their female counterparts. In rural area teachers marry each other. In urban vicinity, female pharmacists marry doctors.

As discussed above girls are freer in making decisions related to marriage. Other than this in some parts of South Asia there is mild patriarchy. Girls can veto their parents in the choice of partners.

Female and male relationship in Philippine is considered equalitarian but despite of female participation sociologists claim the Philippine society as patriarchal (BARBARA E. WARD).

There has been critique over the exploitation of females in domestic jobs. Role of male and female remains differentiated. Males perform very less housework and they are regarded as having dominant authority.

Case study example of domestic violence in Cambodia

Females are regarded as cloth and males as gold in Cambodia. Women are subject to extreme violence. The deprivation of living conditions make an unequal relationship in which men can visit houses of ill-repute without losing societal position, while ladies are in charge of family issues under the pedagogy of men. While men keep on dominating the general population circle, the accommodation of ladies proceeds. The ideal spouse remains the one that, when verbally bothered or beaten, keeps quiet.

According to a UN report in 2013 it was claimed by females in Cambodia that they were subject to physical violence. Women are made to believe that they should respect their husbands and that’s why women silently bear the abuse. Around 98.5 per cent females think that they should obey their husbands.

The domestic violence have reached hype that around 70 per cent of females are victims of post trauma. Many victims are so poor that they cannot afford the treatment. Only one public hospital issues certificate to prove if a female have been a victim of domestic violence (Ana Salva , 2016).

 Case study example on gender roles in Malaysian families

In Malaysia, majority population is Muslim. As per the religious rules girl’s marriage is celebrated. Girls have very limited freedom in selection of partners. The religious guidelines frame the way over how marriage is done. There is proper nikkah done in the presence of two witnesses.

Divorce in Malay families is normal as marriage. If both partners are not interested to live together they can decide to live apart. However after divorce most of the burden is put on females. Females are forced to live in hardships and at the hands of patriarchal society they have to opt for low class jobs as bar waitress or prostitutes.  Males then go for second marriages mostly. As far as property division is concerned females and males have joint property at the time of marriage but after separation they are forced to separate their ownerships. Females mostly have jewellery with them which remains in their ownership. In the peasant Malay families usually the house is the sole asset which the husband leaves for the wife and the children and moves aside.

After getting married husbands and wife live in their own households separate from relatives which mean they live in nuclear families. The wives basic roles if traditional as to cook food look after children. If she performs these duties with responsibility then she is considered a good wife. Husbands’ role is to earn the living. In peasant families women work in agricultural lands. However, women don’t have the right towards financial management of household budget. Mostly men are not found doing the domestic work in Malaysia. If a man temporary has lost his wife he does the household work for a short time but doesn’t carry over the long run.

Relationship between males and females in decision making is also important to be considered because Malay husbands and wives make collective decisions on important matters such as marriages of their children, ownership of assets. It was said in the article that males in farmlands make decisions related to farming and seeding after the consensus with their wives. The writer was able to conclude that Malaysian society is egalitarian.

A spouse wishes to see however much as could reasonably be expected of the assets of the family put resources into a protected shape, regardless of the possibility that this yields a little return. Jewellery can be utilized as family reserve funds, prepared continuously to be her security on the off chance that she be separated. If not adornments then arrive, enrolled in her own name, or for the sake of her children, can have a similar influence. In the event that the spouse, in his part of money supplier, ought to wish to do a venture that will require capital investment, a spouse will oppose the utilization of assets over which she has control for this reason (Michael Swift).

The trends in Malaysian society have changed and now gender roles have changed because now there have been movement from traditional typical roles to modern roles. Daughters are encouraged towards education and this has made changed the attitudes of women towards life. Women today have become more rebellious towards the traditional roles and this has been because of increased exposure of females with the other international females and knowledge from different Medias. Malaysia women today demand greater equality and they are influenced by western theorist’s idea of equality (Hashimah Rose).

Women today have access to educational facilities that have been possible because of government policies. At this level, females outnumber males in enrolment. Women have been seen working towards the fields of arts, science rather than vocational trainings. This have added value to them and have given them equality among male counterparts. 

How media portrays the gender roles

 Female and male roles are highlighted in media in regard to the traditional roles of them in society. In connection with the above discussion of Philippine case study it is now connected with how the roles are portrayed by media. According to the cultivation theory it has been argued that media highlights the perceptions and realities and messages are shown in that way that strengthens the cultivation effect (Gerbner, 1998).

There have been media who have portrayed that half of the female workers work abroad but media have under-represented the gender gap in Philippine. According to the rankings of World Economic Forum, out of 135 nations Philippines is ranked 8th.  Philippine is that South East Asian region which has scored well on gender balanced educational, health and political empowerment. Women in Philippine media are portrayed as physically and mentally inferior and dependant as wives on males. Gender stereotyping is high in Philippines where equality is the basis of gender stereotyping (Michael Prieler,Dave Centeno, 2013).  

In Thailand as discussed above the role of females in labour market, media portrays females as “sacrificing, victims, prostitutes, selfless, mistress and sex object”.


The above discussions have been done through the examples of low income countries where females have to perform two roles one as house carer and another as working women. The traditional approaches have been highlighted and discussed and modern day workings and changes in roles have been discussed. Females roles are now continue to be more equivalent and they are improving in the economic participation with greater opportunities to work and add value in themselves. For example females in Thailand have been victimized in form on prostitutes and in manufacturing jobs but the initiative of government towards availability of educational facilities have helped in improvement of the overall life style of females.


Barbara Watson Andaya. (n.d.). Women in South East Asia.

Amy M. Blackstone. (2003). Gender Roles and Society.

Ana Salva . (2016, April 15). Diplomat. Retrieved from Domestic Violence in Cambodia

Anne Booth. (2016). Women, Work and the Family: Is Southeast Asia Different? 167-197.

Bernadette P.Resurreccion. (n.d.). Gender Trends in Migration and Employment in Southeast Asia. Gender and Development Studies, Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand.

Gerbner. (1998). Cultivation analysis: An overview. Mass Communication & Society.

Kamolrat Intaratat. (Nov 2016). Women Homeworkers in Thailand’s Digital Economy.

Kanchana Tangchonlatip. (2006). Migration and Gender based occupation segregation in Bangkok. Journal of population and social studies, 53-80.

Michael Prieler,Dave Centeno. (2013). Gender Representation in Philippine Television Advertisements.

Patricia Green. (2001). Thailand:Tourism and the Sex Industry. Women .

William Wilson. (2016, August). Beating the Middle-Income Trap in Southeast Asia.

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