Categorized | slider, South Korea

Ending Gender Inequality for Economic Recovery


By Liberty Smith

It is no secret that societal expectations of Korean women are exceedingly burdensome. Approximately 50% of Korean women in their 20’s have had plastic surgery, citing job candidacy and marriage potential as equally strong motivations. Women bear the brunt of unpaid household chores and child-rearing, dedicating more than three times the hours contributed by their domestic partners on average. These regressive social conventions and biases carry negative consequences for female participation in the economy.

With Korean women making 36.7% less than men for similar work in 2016, the gender wage gap for similar work in Korea is the widest of East Asian countries and significantly larger than that of the United States (18.1%) and Mexico (16.5%). Furthermore, rates of female employment in professional, technical, and managerial positions are the lowest of the world’s advanced economies despite near equal labor force participation by all males and females. As Korean policymakers look to address the economic slowdown, these imbalances should be treated as principal areas of focus.

Female Labor Participation: Korea’s long-term growth outlook is encumbered by its shrinking workforce. This trend is a natural feature of a post-industrial economy, but accelerated in the Korean context by a decline in birthrates linked to working women who opt to stay in the workforce rather than have children. Women that do start a family are often pressured to quit or forgo using maternity leave. New mothers returning from leave frequently find their original positions taken and must settle for work with less pay and fewer benefits. The 40% gap in workforce participation between men and women in their 30’s illustrates the career disruption women face at this critical juncture. The graphic below is a country comparison showing the low turnout for women of birthing age in the Korean labor force.

Unequal Household and Labor Division: Women cite a culture of discrimination that does not accommodate the needs of mothers to explain why some women choose to leave the workforce. When only one-third of women return to their jobs after a mandated maternity leave it prompts employers to have a hiring aversion. When employers do not hire a proportional representation of women nor promote them, it encourages women to trade a career for family. Clearly, the core cause for this trend is not an inherent preference for childrearing over a career, but a paradoxical social phenomenon that makes a woman’s career worth less than a man’s. The underlying cause of this is that women are expected to do the vast majority of unpaid housework at home. Women in 2009 did an average of 138 minutes of routine housework daily while their male counterparts did 21. Joongang Sunday analyzed over 150,000 “Time Use Surveys” from 2018 collected by Statistics Korea that revealed the society’s stringent maternal standards come from both outside and inside the family. And according to research by the International Social Survey Programme in 2016 on gender roles, “Korea had the most negative attitudes towards working mothers, believing that a child and the family suffer when a mother works full-time.” This is despite broad support for more equal division of household labor. In a 2014 survey, 64% of male employees said they would share the burden of child rearing when it became socially and financially acceptable. Recent statistics support this finding. As of last year, the Moon administration has expanded paternal leave by increasing its monthly allowance and time limitations. This has resulted in record breaking numbers for men opting to use parental leave. However, there is still further room for growth.

Unequal Share of Corporate Leadership: In a nation ranked last in gender wage equality by the OECD, employers continually use appearance as a critical assessment. Being female puts one in the labor market equivalent of a beauty pageant. It virtually eliminates access to management or technical positions, never mind the executive level. Women make up a staggeringly low percentage of executives at just 2.7% and a dismal 17% represent women in the National Assembly as of 2017 (U.N. Human Development Reports). In 2013, the Segye Financial Times found that female CEOs in the listed 1,787 KOSPI companies made up a mere 0.73% of Korean CEOs. Korean women’s low status in global rankings is quite alarming given the nation’s prestigious status as a world economic power. The Human Development Index – a global measure for quality of life that examines GDP per capita, life spans, and education – lists low performing states like Tajikistan, Uganda, South Africa, Indonesia, and Bolivia as places that foster closer equality of the sexes than the highly ranked Republic of Korea. Thus proving occupational diversity and equal compensation for women is not constricted by geographical location, religion, regime type, or wealth. Having a heterogeneous boardroom is proven to be the best environment for producing creative solutions imperative for propelling growth and competitiveness. The OECD has forecasted that equal participation and opportunity between genders in Korea would add an average of 0.9% per year in GDP growth.

The laws in place such as Sexual Equality Employment Act or the Act on Equal Employment and Reconciliation of Work and Family are largely ceremonial and in effect do little to curb the perpetual discrimination against women. Maternity and paternity leave are both legally protected freedoms that employers and management actively discourage by not informing workers of benefits, withholding promotions from women who take maternity leave or giving them demotions when they return to work, and using verbal threats of job insecurity. The fact that it is exceedingly rare for male employees to use paternity leave speaks to the strength of the norms at play.

Japan – a country notorious for similar gender parity issues – is openly facing them head-on. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, dubiously proclaims that amelioration begins with classes for women and setting lenient quotas for firms; a policy initiative he calls “womenomics.” Its success is underwhelming. 1.5 million women have since been added to the workforce but the labor is largely low-skilled and low-wage.  Policies that fail to address and de-incentivize the prevailing culture directly do little more than patronize working women. This socially designed absence of urgency prolongs this trend, even at dire economic straits.

Failed social movements in places like Japan should be a teaching moment. It is not enough to diagnose or codify a systemic issue. A government that pushes for a change in society through policy is unlikely to succeed without first garnering substantial public support. Equally important as policy itself, support brings about the internalization of an idea that marries society to new norms. The extinguishment of discrimination should not center on the subjects of it, but its sources. Pushing for support starts with educating the right people in the right context. Providing subsidies for childcare, high exposure of advocacy and spokespeople, mandating transparency in compensation, corporate bias and intervention training are a few places to start. For women to feel empowered to enter the market as careerists, three conditions commonly found in egalitarian states must be cultivated in Korea: job security after maternal leave, acceptance of burden-sharing for child-rearing, and equal opportunity at top leadership/management levels. A successful challenge to gender inequity will usher in the use of the entire talent pool and a chance at emerging from stagflation.

Liberty Smith is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Dickson Phua’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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