By Dr. Seung-kyung Kim
On October 16, President Park Geun-hye and President Barack Obama will be meeting for the fourth time since they became presidents of their respective countries. As always, the security issues involving North Korea will be the top item on their agenda. However, the two countries also have a broad range of mutual interests in such topics as economy, environment, energy, space, health, trade, and cybersecurity. To this list, I would like to suggest an issue that has been central to both presidents’ interests and commitments throughout their presidencies: the importance of middle class families and the work-family balance that is at the core of sustaining middle class lives in both countries. Earlier this year in state of the nation addresses, both presidents stressed the importance of enhancing the lives of middle class families and their centrality to revitalizing their national economies. The work-family balance is no longer a matter of individual life, but a national (even global) issue that governments and policymakers should pick up and do something about.
The old idea that middle class families consist of a breadwinning father and a homemaking mother has become obsolete in both countries. In Korea 44% of married couples are now dual earner families (Korea National Statistics Office), while for the United States the figure is 48% (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The lives of middle class families are thus becoming more challenging because both men and women need to balance family and work responsibilities, and the issue of work-family balance is an important one for both presidents in their goals to improve the well-being of the middle class.
Women are, of course, at the heart of the work-life dilemma because they are placed in much more vulnerable positions than men, both in the workplace and at home. Not only does the wage gap prevent women from earning the same incomes as men, but women are also more likely to leave the work force in order to assume the responsibilities of child rearing. Women achieve higher education in both countries at a rate comparable to or higher than men: in Korea, 49.4% of recipients of bachelor’s degrees are women (Korea Education Development Institute) while in the United States, 52.4% of recipients of bachelor’s degrees are women (National Center for Education Statistics).
Both countries have problems with unequal access to the job market. In the United States, women’s labor force participation is below that of men at all ages except the teenage years (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). In Korea, women start out with high rates of labor force participation, but, after age thirty, women are significantly less likely to be in the workforce. The gap between women and men’s labor force participation is highest for people in their thirties, when about 90% of men are in the work force, but less than 60% of women are (Korea National Statistics Office). This drop can be attributed to the fact that women of this age have child rearing responsibilities that their male counterparts do not. 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. 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.
Governments can assist families trying to achieve work-family balance by instituting policies that help women participate more fully in the labor force. Among these policies are insuring paid maternity leave, providing quality childcare, and easing barriers to reentry into the labor force. Both countries need to work on implementing these policies, and both presidents have made efforts to address them.
In terms of women in the workplace, Korea and the United States have significantly different deficiencies. The United States is the only high-income country in the world that does not require employers to provide paid maternity leave for employees. The high cost of childcare is another problem in the U.S. as President Obama noted in a recent speech, “… in most states, parents spend more on day care for their children than they would for a year of college” (University of Kansas, January 22, 2015). South Korea, on the other hand, suffers from the largest wage gap between men and women in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with women only earning 65% of what men earn. The low wages paid to women depresses their rate of labor force participation and women who have left the work force find it difficult to resume their careers. Only 20% of re-employed women are hired for full-time regular positions while more than 60% are hired back as part-timers or contract workers (Korean Women’s Development Institute).
Both presidents recognize the importance of increasing the participation of women in the labor force to their national economies and have presented strategies to achieve this. President Park has asserted “More participation of women in the economy is a core engine for the nation’s growth” (Wall Street Journal June 17, 2013). Her government has worked to increase the number of child care facilities and improved their quality. She also has advocated that employers should create female-friendly work environments and adopt more flexible hours to help working mothers. Her Minister of Gender Equality and Family, Kim Hee-jung, said “We need for [companies] to realize that keeping women in the workplace is investing in our future” (Reuters January 27, 2015). President Obama has identified “high quality, affordable child care” as “a national economic priority” and said he would like to make quality child care accessible to 100 million more children and provide an annual tax cut for their families of up to $3,000 per child. “It is time we stop treating child care as a side issue or a women’s issue,” he said. “This is a family issue” (University of Kansas, January 22, 2015).
Given both presidents’ interest and commitment to work-family balance, I can envision them putting their heads together and discussing these issues. They will find that they have yet another topic in common to discuss and share ideas about.
Dr. Seung-kyung Kim is a Professor, Chair of the Department of Women’s Studies and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Marcelo Druck’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.