Taiwan president-elect Tsai Ing-wen on January 16, 2016. Picture: AFP PHOTO/SAM YEH
Taiwan president-elect Tsai Ing-wen on Saturday. Picture: AFP PHOTO/SAM YEH

Taipei — ONCE derided as unfit for leadership because she was a "skirt-wearer", the election of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s first female president is fuelling hopes the island can break free of the entrenched sexism rooted in its culture.

She swept to power with a landslide victory on Saturday, ending eight years of Kuomintang rule, as voters turned their backs on closer ties with Beijing.

Ms Tsai, who leads the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has said Britain’s first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, is one of her inspirations.

"Ms Tsai’s election is a landmark for the women’s rights movement in Taiwan," said DPP legislator Yu Mei-nu, also a women’s rights lawyer.

Taiwan has a high number of women participating in politics, but they face challenges due to the legacy of a cultural tradition that favours boys over girls, and defines a woman’s role as that of caregiving.

Ms Tsai has often been criticised for being unmarried and has had to bat away questions about her sexuality.

"Taiwan isn’t as conservative as before, however, deep-rooted chauvinistic views in our patriarchal culture can’t be overturned right away," said Chiang Yueh-chin, head of women’s rights group, Taipei Awakening Association.

"I hope society will give more space to single women, more respect and more tolerance," Ms Tsai said.

Workplace inequality is also a problem in the country — women are paid an average 15% less than men and some say they have lost their jobs once they became pregnant, despite legal protection.