TAIPEI - Irene Yen could have chosen to go to university like many 19-year-olds, but instead she opted to swap lecture halls and libraries for a bracing life as a member of the military coastguard patrolling a lonely archipelago.
Yen is among a growing number of Taiwanese women - who make up about 44 per cent of the workforce - opting for jobs traditionally dominated by men in the coastguard, military and police as the island looks to promote better gender equality.
"I've always wanted to be a soldier and I chose to go to the Spratlys because it was not open to women before," said Yen from the oil-rich islands in the South China Sea where she is stationed and which are at the centre of overlapping territorial claims by several countries.
Taiwan sent its first female officers to the Spratlys this year.
She serves as a coastguard with military ranking. "It's like serving on the front line because of the tensions in the region," Yen told AFP in a telephone interview. "This is very meaningful to me."
Observers say changes in Taiwanese women's career choices are partly a reflection of improving gender equality and, in terms of serving in the military or police, partly down to economic necessity as the allure of a steady government job increases in sluggish economic times.
"It's difficult to find a good job in this flagging economy, even for those with higher degrees," said lawmaker Hsueh Ling from the parliament's defence committee.
The increasing numbers of women moving from traditional roles such as teachers, secretaries and nurses into a wider array of jobs also stands to benefit a Taiwanese military that is struggling to recruit men.
The military, which is aiming to phase out conscription by the end of 2016, saw 5,300 women apply for just 799 positions last year, whereas it met just 68 per cent of its quota for men for its paid "volunteer" recruitment programme.
Some female recruits, such as 32-year-old sergeant first-class Lee Tzu-yun, have given up careers in other fields to serve in uniform.
Lee was among the first batch of female volunteer soldiers when she quit her banking job to join the military in 2007. She now works for a military recruitment centre in Taipei, using her own experience to encourage youngsters to follow suit.
"My family were concerned at that time as they saw the military as the men's world and not a choice profession for women. Besides the stability offered by this job, I like challenges," said Lee. "I wanted to try a brand new field."
Women currently constitute 11 per cent of the military's paid "volunteer" force, which trails behind the United States' 15 per cent but is higher than Japan's and South Korea's 3-4 per cent, according to its recruitment centre.
Room for improvement
The police have also seen an increase in the number of women joining in recent years.
From 2003 to 2012 the number of female police officers doubled to 4,084, which constituted 6.4 per cent of the total police force, according to the National Police Agency.
And while in the past women mostly worked behind desks, more female police officers are now in the field performing tasks from cracking down on drunk drivers to serving as riot police.
Concerns remain about longer-term career prospects for women in traditionally male-dominated lines of work. The military, for example, has seen only five female generals in its history, of whom one is still in the service.
Last year, the first female skipper of a naval ship, whose 2007 appointment was highly publicised, asked to be transferred to a teaching post, citing family reasons.
A 2011 survey by the Council of Labour Affairs showed that five per cent of female respondents felt that their gender had negatively impacted their earning power, compared with 0.8 per cent of male workers.
Government statistics show that Taiwanese women earn on average about 18 per cent less than Taiwanese men.
"There is still a lot of room for improved gender equality in the workplace," said Liu Chia-yi, chairwoman of the Taipei Association for the Promotion of Women's Rights.
"The government and employers must enforce relevant regulations to ensure women's working rights," she said.
Some government commissions fail to abide by the law to ensure that women comprise one-third of their board members, while it is not uncommon for women to refrain from taking longer maternity leave over fears for their careers, she added.
Corporal Chiang Wen-chien is a 26-year-old former ballerina who joined the military in 2009.
"I think women will encounter some barriers in any workplace because of our natural physical limitations," she said.
"We have to overcome them, work hard and be persistent."