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Why Korean Women Opt Out

By Ye Eun Charlotte Chun

Over the last few decades, South Korea has witnessed some of the greatest economic success stories in East Asia. Following the Korean War, South Korea had a GDP per capita of $79, behind most of Latin America and some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Today, its GDP per capita stands at $20,000, making it a leading G-20 economy. However, this success has not come without a cost.

In an effort to maximize economic growth, South Korean leaders have let key issues, such as human rights and gender parity, fall to the periphery of public concern. In the instances where critical social issues are considered, they are discussed solely in their relation to economic growth. When South Korea’s Global Gender Gap ranking dropped to 111 out of 136 earlier this year, few heads turned. Even fewer cared to find out why.

By numbers alone, prospects do not seem so grim. Korean women enjoy one of the highest rates of employment and education in East Asia. Female unemployment hasn’t exceeded five percent in over six years, and the male- to-female labor participation ratios have remained stable at 7:5 in the past decade. Additionally, the female literacy rate is one of the world’s highest at 99 percent, and women have consistently outperformed men in standardized testing by 11 percent. From these figures alone, it seems counterintuitive that South Korea’s gender gap ranking is so low.  

The key factor is the size and composition of the nation’s female workforce. While there are more working women in their early 20s than men in some industries, like education, these numbers are cut in half once women reach their 30s. Only 56% of all women are defined as part of the workforce, significantly diminishing the impact of low female unemployment rates.

Given women’s high levels of education and excellent performance in testing, what explains the huge job disparity between men and women? And why are they opting out of the workforce in their 30s? The answer lies in South Korea’s deep-rooted definitions of women, perpetuated by Confucianism. While it has not necessarily created a discriminatory, patriarchal society, it has played a significant role in creating a generation of women who truly believe their careers should first and foremost be mothers and housewives. Daughters are applauded for getting into college, not because admissions is a symbol of personal achievement, but because they may now meet their equally accomplished husbands in university. After marriage, women eagerly adopt their place in the home as a wife and mother. Even the plastic surgery industry, hugely popular in South Korea, idealizes the image of a “feminine” docile figure. Features like small faces, white skin, and slender figures are highly sought after. South Korea’s adherence to strict gender roles, if anything, is the societal embodiment of a corset: self-implemented and restrictive. 

In searching for the cause of this trend, South Korea’s education system may be to blame. Studies done by the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KDWI) have shown that textbooks ostensibly promoting gender equality actually perpetuate gender stereotypes by portraying women in aprons or waiting on their husbands. In school books, politicians are, without fail, depicted as men. Even gender biases held by teachers can discourage girls from choosing more “masculine” electives like physical education instead of art or home economics. From an early age, women are taught by other female role models that there is a “proper” way to be female. While several research institutions like KDWI have proposed policy changes for educational reform, little has been done to implement those proposals.

Though little educational or political reform has taken place, the rise of prominent female politicians and businesswomen shows a promising trend in countering traditionally held gender stereotypes. Earlier this year, South Korea elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, who has promoted the image of a strong, confident leader. Lee Pu-jin, daughter of Samsung tycoon Lee Kun-hee, became the first female president of a Samsung Company in 2012. While many opponents have criticized these influential women for having had family connections to back their rise to power, the fact that they are even being considered for leadership is significant progress. After all, South Koreans are increasingly showing a trend toward favoring daughters over sons, and having these positive female role models for young women is critical.

Getting to the root of female discrimination means empowering women to realize their own potential. Petitions to extend maternal health benefits or decrease wage discrepancies are good starting points. However, these are only temporary means of increasing female welfare. Considering how well educated South Korean women are, the first steps should be to reform the country’s curriculum and train teachers to be positive female role models. More women need to take positions in the public sphere to begin a trend toward female empowerment, and break the mentality that women must sacrifice personal ambitions for their families. Last but not least, South Korea must begin to tie gender into the economy and realize that if it wants to continue economic progress, it cannot do so without including its women. It’s time that we help Korean women realize that they can strive to have it all, after all. 

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Ye Eun Charlotte Chun is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. 

[Photo courtesy of Seoulful Adventures]

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