Theravada Buddhism is perceived to be male dominated. In fact this view is not quite accurate: Theravada Monasteries are male dominated. As for the practise, the meditation, the inspiration, the women play a huge role.
There is little that women can’t do in Theravada. The only activity they cannot lead are the ordination of monks, and a couple of other technical areas for monks who have committed offences against the Vinaya rules (and likewise Bhikkhunis look after their own offence procedures). Otherwise there are no doctrinal bars.
Women can meditate, and teach meditation. They can give precepts and refuges. They can open centres. They can become enlightened.
The word ‘doctrinal’ is italicised for a reason though; there are some cultural perceptions about the role of women in Thai Buddhism that have no doctrinal basis.
For instance there are some temples in the North of Thailand that bar women from certain stupas. These places are rather few compared to the vast number of temples. And quite where they get this idea from is hard to imagine. The Buddha specifically allowed stupas to be built as an inspiration, pilgrimage and demonstration of faith in the teaching. There was no mention of being for one sex only. It’s a real shame that these temples have gotten such ideas.
There is also a common idea that women can’t become enlightened. Perhaps this stems from another doctrinal error – that only ordained monastics can become Arahants. This traditional error likely comes from a further fallacy, that when one becomes enlightened, one either ordains as a monk/nun or else will pass away within 7 days – presumably because they have little means of supporting themselves. This too has no doctrinal basis.
However the idea came about it is wrong – according to the suttas, men, women, ordained and lay can become enlightened. Many Thais in fact highly venerate some Mae Chees as being arahants. Many Thais revered female lay Abhidhamma teacher Ajahn Naeb as being fully enlightened. So the views in Thailand are hardly consistent.
In fact there are many wrong views floating about any Buddhist community – the scriptures are vast and not many people have read them all. (And those that have still disagree)
The male domination of the monasteries came about not by design, or by sexism, but by the simple fact that the female ordained lineage fizzled out. With no nuns to ordain new nuns, that left the poor men to endure the hardships of the renunciate and celibate life …. ok, so that was a bit bias. But the fact remains – the monastic structure was such that it required a quorum of nuns to ordain new nuns, and when there are too few left there will be no more ordinations. The same would be true if there were not enough men.
For instance in the early days of Buddhism in New Zealand, Australia and Europe, Westerners who wanted to be ordained there had to fly in monks from Asia in order to have enough to make a full quorum.
So there is little that a woman cannot do in Theravada Buddhism according to the doctrine. If culturally a particular society has a set or perceptions limiting either sex in any way – that is a matter of that society.
Recently there have been Bhikkhunis ordaining again in Theravada Buddhism. Whether one considers their lineage to be authentic or not is almost a moot point. They are here, they are ordaining, they are the future :- and the sangha/society has to get behind them or get left behind.