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Gender Problems in Thailand

How Female English Teachers Deal with Discrimination

Western women who teach English in Thailand face problems that Western men do not. These can be as superficial as what you wear, but can also go much deeper, forcing you to question your fundamental sense of what it means to be female.

To begin with, there are very specific dress requirements for the female “Kru” or “Acharn” in Thailand. Some schools require female teachers to wear skirts and no pants or sleeveless blouses, or shoes that don’t reveal too much of your heels or toes.

Because teachers in Thailand have a high social status, they are expected to be “respectable,” which entails a somewhat conservative, frumpy, yet put-together look. If you are in your 20s and don’t wish to look like old granny, probably the best choice is to wear business-like attire.

Because you’re a woman, you may be asked to do additional kinds of work that males are less likely to be asked to do. For example in Thailand it is customary to give females full responsibility for taking care of and teaching younger children. Female teachers may also be asked to take on a babysitting or secretarial role in addition to their teaching. This can be frustrating for Western women who travel to other parts of the world precisely because they don’t want to accept the stereotypical female roles.

A woman may be offered less pay than her Western male counterparts. At places like AUA (American University Alumni Association), where I currently work, the hourly wages are standardized (approximately 300 Baht); however, in schools where salaries are monthly, the salary scales are not always transparent. At two schools I received approximately one third less than my Western male colleagues.

Even though you may practice an alternative lifestyle (you most probably do if you are single female traveling alone around the world), try not to display this when you are teaching. With Thai students and especially with a Thai boss it is better to appear conservative. The best thing to say is that you are traveling with a female friend and plan to get married and settled down in the next few years.

All of this may seem frustrating and depressing, but there are many ways to deal positively with gender problems that will help make your experience more enjoyable:

Always keep in mind what exactly it is you want to accomplish by being in Thailand and focus your energy on that goal; don’t waste it mulling over frustrating experiences. Just remember that these are part of the package and before long you’ll be home again with plenty of stories to tell. Thai cultural events and hobbies provide a way to direct attention to more positive aspects of Thai culture.

Nothing beats being able to laugh off an experience at the end of the day. Turn it into a comical story to help others deal with similar problems. The many publications for foreigners in Thailand are overwhelmingly dominated by Western male perspectives. All would benefit from hearing alternatives. The Bangkok Women’s Writing Club meets at the Dutch Pub every two weeks.

Find other Western female English teachers with whom you can share your experiences.

Many Thai people also live lifestyles more in line with yours than most students who attend English language schools. Its just a matter of finding the right people to hang around with outside of work. For example, try attending some seminars at a local university political science department.

Despite this advice, I am no advocate for passively submitting to the status quo. If something happens to you that is outrageously ridiculous and you want to do something to change the situation at work, then by all means do so. Here is some useful advice about how to tactfully do this in a Thai context:

  • Don’t divulge all your feelings to a Thai woman and expect her to sympathize. It is inappropriate in Thailand to express anger and frustration as one would in the West. It is also very uncommon to question superiors. My suggestion would be to express your anger and frustration to a Western female.
  • Don’t storm into the boss’s office or send emotional letters. In Thailand is strong “pii nong” culture inferiors must submit to the ideas of superiors. Approach your boss delicately with a very calm voice but without any expectations. It is better to leave the job than to create a bad relationship with the boss as this will inevitably mean you will want to leave the job anyway.
  • Moreover, don’t expect a female Thai boss to be any more understanding than a Thai male boss. Ironically, sometimes female Thai bosses can be even more picky about clothes and more harsh with salaries than Thai male bosses.

If you really feel strongly about discrimination because of your gender, I would advise you to consider whether teaching English is the appropriate job for you. There are many volunteer opportunities, internships, and jobs with local nongovernmental organizations working on women’s rights in Thailand who would appreciate the effort you are putting into this much more than a boss at an English school.