Abstract Gender equality is a foreign concept introduced to Laos since the development of the market economy. It has been applied to formulating government policies related to women’s livelihoods, motherhood, and economic participation, but it is not a means to empower women in gaining political power. This article offers a case study on gender inequality in Laos, and argues that it is the traditional phu nyai or “big man” concept which has determined the current position of women in public participation. Through ethnographic accounts of urban and suburban women, the author shows the limitations and opportunities for females in the Lao (post)socialist system. The article further argues that under the macro processes of national development and modernization since the mid-1980s, which have brought about a wider gender gap than before, the “big man” system is complicated by the development of “big women,” such that the common woman is subordinate not only to men in general, but also to powerful women. As a result, despite socio-economic improvement, individual women in Laos are subject to a national project of gender equality that exists only in name.