“Although Korea was 26th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, we were just 117th in its Gender Parity Index. I always mention these two figures at the same time, because I want to emphasize that improving gender parity in politics, economics and other social sectors is the way to improve our national competitiveness.” These words shared by Minister of Gender Equality and Family of the Republic of Korea, Kim Hee-Jung, suggest that South Korea, no longer considered the economic tiger it once was, needs to work toward greater gender parity if it wants to continue growing its now stagnant economy.
Korea has made some progress toward greater gender equality over the last three decades. Since the mid-1990s, South Korea has revised more than 300 laws discriminating against women. For example, in 2005, the Constitutional Court eliminated provisions in the Civil Code that allowed only men to be the legal head of household.
At the same time, women in South Korea still face many roadblocks in and out of the workplace that prevent them from fully participating in the economy. They continue to work in low-status and low-wage jobs in sectors such as textiles, food processing and manufacturing, while men dominate the more well-respected, higher-paying sectors. Moreover, South Korean women’s relative wages have not advanced significantly since the late 1970s. Only through organized labor unions did women achieve a 3.5 percent rise in the female/male earning ratio in the manufacturing sector rise from 1975 to 1990. The female labor force participation rate in South Korea also remains lower than those of other advanced economies, and women have a high rate of dropout from employment when they marry or have children, leading to a 15 percentage point dip in the labor participation rate in their 30s.
To address Korea’s economic stagnation, Park Geun-Hye, the country’s first female president, devised a Three-Year Plan for Economic Innovation. With the goal of adding 2.5 million jobs during her time in office and offering new tax incentives to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, President Park recognizes the importance of tapping into one of South Korea’s economic secret weapons: women. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies cites, “If women—over 60 percent of whom under the age of 35 are university educated—were as likely to join and stay in the formal economy as are men, South Korea’s current workforce would increase by nearly 5 million” and its GDP would increase by six percent by 2025.
As part of this Plan, President Park hopes to reserve 1.5 of the 2.5 million new jobs specifically for women, but recognizes that steps need to be taken to get women to take those jobs. In her address to the Nation in February 2014, President Park detailed a specific government childcare initiative to solve the issue of women dropping out of the workforce because of career interruptions due to childbirth and childrearing. This daycare and childcare support system would include services tailored for different working arrangements and expanded employment insurance so that women can take parental leave more easily. To encourage women to fully take advantage of these initiatives for reduced working hours during the child-care period, the government also promised to expand the substitution pool for alternate personnel, give full-time female employees the right to opt for part-time working arrangements and guarantee a return to full-time arrangements at a later time.
Yet the realities of culture in South Korea have impeded the implementation of President Park’s ambitions. South Korea’s economic history, coupled with Confucian influences, are manifested in the country’s corporate culture: the family-centered business model, highly centralized corporate structure, seniority in personnel policy, inheritance relationship based on family line and high commitment to harmony that greatly limits women’s abilities to speak up about their issues. In fact, out of the nation’s four largest conglomerates — Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and SK — women hold less than two percent of seats on their boards, and almost no female executives exist at South Korean banks.
Accordingly, social expectations from family members, as well as institutionalized systems, do not encourage women to pursue professional careers. “I may be a good employee, but to my family I am a failure,” wrote Hwang, a marketing executive and mother of a six-year-old son, to The Washington Post. “In their eyes, I am a bad daughter-in-law, bad wife and bad mother.” South Korean law allows a full year of subsidized parental leave, but intense pressure at work results in working mothers taking little time off. Consequently, only about 35,000 parents in this country of 49 million people took advantage of child-care leave subsidies last year. Married women with jobs are indeed facing deep conflict between their intentions and reality.
Even with President Park’s initiatives in the Three-Year Plan that accommodate women’s needs related to childcare, the social expectations and traditions embedded in the Korean corporate culture prevent women from fully realizing their economic potential. However, if South Korea is going to overcome economic stagnation and reinvigorate its economy, women must be supported to fully participate in the workforce.