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The Peninsula

On International Women’s Day, South Korea Needs to Do More

Published March 8, 2016
Author: Jenna Gibson
Category: South Korea

By Jenna Gibson

In The Economist’s recent ranking of the best and worst places to be a working woman, South Korea did not fare well. In fact, it was considered last among OECD countries.

In what they call their “glass-ceiling index,” The Economist ranked OECD countries along various measures related to women in the workforce, including the higher education gap, female labor force participation, wage gap, women in leadership positions, and more.

One measure that was not on The Economist’s list but highlights the plight of women workers even more starkly – 20 percent of working women in Korea quit their job after getting married or becoming pregnant. That was 1.95 million women in 2013.

“Even after the end of the peak phase of childrearing, women in Korea do not return to the labor force in numbers comparable to those of men,” wrote University of Maryland professor Sung-kyung Kim in a 2015 article for KEI. “The fact that so many women remain outside the labor force is both a loss of productivity to society, and a loss of opportunity to the women.”

There are also other, less obvious issues that could influence women’s participation in the workforce and the quality of their experiences once they get there. For example, KEI recently wrote about the practice of including a photo on resumes and asking female applicants personal questions about their marital status and appearance – such questions are technically illegal but are still an issue that the Ministry of Employment and Labor is trying to address.

Women in the Workforce Graphic

By some measures, South Korea performed better than its peers – it was actually ranked first in the OECD for child-care costs thanks to a government subsidy meant to offset daycare fees. This doesn’t show the full picture, however – these subsidies have been scrutinized recently for failing to provide funding when needed, and in many cases parents still choose to pay for expensive private education for their young children, either in addition to or instead of the subsidized daycare.


Some movement forward

Despite the remaining challenges, there do seem to be some places where progress is being made, albeit slowly. For example, the female employment rate has been rising since 2012, hitting a record high of 55.7 percent in 2015.

And the household chores gap is narrowing, with more men reporting that they are helping out with preparing meals (38.5 percent in 2015 vs 22.2 percent in 2010) and washing dishes (45 percent in 2015 vs 29 percent in 2010).

In addition, South Korea does have generous maternity leave and it even provides paternity leave, which an increasing number of new fathers are taking advantage of – although when the increase is from 4.5 percent in 2014 to 5.6 percent in 2015, there’s still a ways to go.

To be fair, most other countries have a long way to go as well. In The Economist index, the highest score was Iceland, with 88 out of 100 possible points – leaving quite a bit of growth there as well. And the United States is no beacon of hope – recent conversations about the fact that the United States is the only industrialized country without mandated paid leave for new mothers have certainly highlighted this fact.

During her presidential campaign in 2012, President Park Geun-hye emphasized the importance of addressing the issues women face in the workforce, saying, “More participation of women in the economy is a core engine for the nation’s growth.” And her administration has taken some steps to ameliorate the situation, strengthening the coordinating role of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and setting a target ratio for female managers across the public sector. She’s not wrong – a recent global study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that having more women in corporate leadership positions significantly increased profitability.

International Women’s Day could, and should, provide a new opportunity to reassess those commitments and make some more positive changes for working women across South Korea.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Ian Muttoo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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