The Working Woman

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This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of Groove Korea. Illustration by Derrick Dent and Aaron Philby. Additional reporting by Hyejin Park and Jongmin Lee. View the magazine here.


When Rosie Park decided on a corporate career, she knew it would be tough — not because of the competitive nature of the industry, but because she is female. “Companies don’t want women because (they think) they will quit,” she says.

At 24, she feels she has been stamped with an expiration date that, despite her hard work, will make it difficult for her to advance at the same rate as her male peers. “People think if girls come into the company at 24 or 26, two or three years later they will get married. Usually when women get married, they quit,” she explains.

Korea’s corporate workforce is dominated by men. From entry level to executives, men far outnumber women in the majority of companies. Gender discrimination and a thick glass ceiling are expected to await women who enter the corporate world. When coupled with stories of sexual harassment in the office and long working hours, it all makes for an unfriendly working atmosphere for women.

The government has started to take note, with President Park Geun-hye committing to increasing female participation in the workforce. But even with her initiatives, the questions about marriage, conformity to gender stereotypes and the inevitability that motherhood will happen and be a career-breaker seem to plague the daily lives of young women who choose this career path.

For Rosie Park, a planner at a small auto-parts trading company, a promotion seems out of reach if the current trend of advancement through her company continues. “Many girls have worked here for six years, but they are still at quite a low level. Usually it’s two years and you go up a level,” she says.

If attitudes towards women in Korean companies don’t change, Park says she will look abroad for more career opportunities. “I’m not comfortable staying in Korea because of the stereotype for girls,” she says.

Why women don’t work

The Korean labor force is characterized by a lack of women. The latest employment figures from Statistics Korea show that while female participation in the labor force increased to just over 50 percent in March, it still lags far behind the 73.5 percent employment participation rate for men. Despite this slight growth, top companies are still failing to employ women.

Earlier this year, market research firm CEOScore found that women made up only 16.6 percent of the workforce on average in the top 19 companies by sales in the country last year. This is just over a 2 percent increase compared to a decade ago. At the top level the statistics get worse. Women make up less than 2 percent of the 5,699 corporate officials of the 10 biggest companies. According to the data, roughly 1 out of every 1,430 female employees has reached a corporate management level compared to 1 out of 90 for men.

On a global scale, Korea’s reputation for not being female-friendly was cast into the limelight last year after the World Economic Forum placed the country 111th out of 136 countries in its 2013 Global Gender Gap report.

In 2011, the Korea Women’s Development Institute found that women accounted for less than 5 percent of corporate executives in companies with more than 1,000 employees, and in a 2012 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korea had the biggest gender pay gap, 39 percent, among member countries in 2010 — narrowing the gap by 1 percent since 2000 when it also topped the list.

Song Eun-jung, director of labor policy at the Korean Women Workers Association, an NGO that advocates for women’s rights, says that women still face discrimination in the office even though there are laws in place to protect them. Last year, the organization saw a threefold increase in consultations concerning maternity leave, including women who said they were being pressured to quit their jobs due to pregnancy. Song says tactics such as verbal abuse or a heavier workload have been employed by some companies to relieve the burden of maternity pay.

“For example, a superior said to a woman, ‘I don’t want to look at your tummy because it’s too fat,’ or they just dispatch the women to a harsh department. They say they cannot give maternity leave at all or ‘I will give just one month, and if you want to continue the break, just quit,’” Song says.

Korean law states that a woman is entitled to up to 90 days of maternity leave, with the first 60 days paid. It is illegal for an employer to allocate any overtime work to a pregnant employee, and a light workload should be given at her request. The law also stipulates paid time off for health checks. Both parents of a child under age 6 are also eligible for child care leave, which allows for a yearlong break with the guarantee of the same job, or one that pays the same wage, after the 12-month break. Dismissal or unfavorable treatment of an employee upon request of child care leave is illegal.

In a more woman-populated work environment, such as the education field, maternity leave works well. But Song maintains that a lack of maternity leave is more prevalent in small companies, which are usually male-dominated and where temporary replacements can be hard to find. Even though the law states this benefit is a requirement, Song says companies rarely receive any punishment, as it is a “matter of the government’s will.”

“Technically, (small companies) don’t take it really seriously,” she says. “There are cases where one or two women want to file a lawsuit against the government about maternity leave or birth breaks, but it’s really hard to fight against the company or the government.”

The gender pay gap

On top of maternity leave and career breaks holding women back from climbing the corporate ladder, it seems education can do little to further their careers. Korea has the lowest level of female graduate employment across the OECD, and even with Koreans clocking up annual work hours that exceed those in most other countries, women still earn less than men. So why does Korea have the highest gender pay gap in all of the OECD even though there are laws in place to protect against it?

“Because of giving birth and child-raising duties of women in their thirties, career disruption happens,” says Chae Myung-sook, deputy director of the Internal Cooperation Division at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. While an investigation conducted by the department found that 52 percent of women cited pregnancy as a disruption to their work life, the ministry is focusing on creating family-friendly work conditions that aim to harmonize the work and life balance through flexible hours and family support programs. The number of family-friendly certified companies doubled to more than 500 nationwide last year compared to the previous 12 months.

Along with this, Chae says that the government has many ongoing programs to lure women back to the workplace after having a baby. “One is child care, and if working mothers want to use this service, they can be first priority so that we can prevent career disruption,” she says. On top of this, the Park administration has unleashed plans catered toward breaking the glass ceiling, including establishing an “Academy of Female Talent,” which will train women to become experts in their field and hold special career development programs aimed at smaller companies that lack professional training opportunities.

While the government is focusing on improving female participation in the labor force, some women still feel that their career will plateau once they start a family. Jung Hyo-jung, a manager at an international company just outside Seoul, has a 14-month-old son and describes her work and life balance as having two full-time jobs. In 10 years at her company, she has been promoted twice, but now fears her family duties will keep her from future career opportunities.

“Before I became pregnant, I quite often went on business trips. Now longer-period business trips may not be acceptable anymore,” she explains. “The company cannot use (me) as much as they want because I am going to be selective.”

Even with the government working to increase female employment, Song says its policies are “not working well” because companies still view men and women’s societal duties as different. “(Companies) think female workers are not eligible for higher positions. It doesn’t make sense to them (to hire a woman) because first they have to raise their kids,” she explains.

“We have a Confucian culture and a male-dominated society from the Joseon Dynasty. Even if the government makes a policy about protecting women or making it equal between females and males, it’s kind of useless.””

‘Unpleasant’ circumstances

Jung works in a company that employs around 7,000 people. Even though she thinks women are underrepresented in managerial positions, she admits that sometimes it’s easier to work with men. “If I work with female subordinates, I need to (consider) their emotions and my words and attitude. Sometimes there are various things that I should point out to them (and) I need to pick kind words,” she says.

Jung does this because she sees a lack of mentorship available compared to when she began her career. “When I was a junior, our company was not big like this. I had more responsibilities than juniors (have now), which means I might have been taken care of more by my superiors. But now most of the company employees are newcomers and there are not enough superiors to mentor them,” she explains.

Jung typically puts in a 50-hour workweek, but when it gets busy she is unable to say how late she could end up working. Waking up at 6 a.m., she isn’t able to spend time with her son before leaving the house, and due to the lack of day care facilities that fit her schedule, she must hire a nanny to take care of him. “I start work at 8 a.m. I don’t finish (work) at a regular time, so there is no other choice,” she says.

Gender discrimination isn’t an issue that Jung has faced within her office, but she has still tackled “unpleasant” circumstances. “I was on the construction site and I had a male boss who told me, ‘You should work like a man, so I want to show you how men play after work.’ And he took me to a room salon. I didn’t want to stay there, but he insisted that I stay because I needed to know. Sometimes people were singing in the room salon and I tried to match the mood. I sang a song and drank something, but it was not very comfortable,” she recalls.

Such situations have only happened twice to Jung, but both times she says she felt forced to attend. “In those two times I didn’t want to go, but there was some situation and I couldn’t run away,” she says.

The after-work socializing culture in Korean business is viewed as a way to bond with work colleagues and seniors on a less formal basis. The alcohol-heavy social event called a hoesik (company dinner), can improve work relations and even affect job promotions. Recently, however, it has garnered attention for eliciting inappropriate behavior from superiors toward their employees. Earlier this year, it was reported that a man in Busan was charged with sexually harassing a female employee last year during a hoesik. But women say they often feel that they can’t report such harassment, and accept it as a part of working life.

A 2012 government report on sexual harassment in public institutions found that out of the 7.7 percent of women who said they have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, 92 percent admitted to dealing with the situation by just enduring it. A survey by the local job website Career from the same year found that over 40 percent of the 405 respondents encountered sexual harassment in the workplace, with female victims accounting for over 70 percent. The most common place for it to occur was at a hoesik (44.5 percent), with a boss being the biggest perpetrator (78.7 percent).

Ms. C, who did not want to be named, worked in three different companies in 2013. She says she was pushed to quit twice due to severe bullying by seniors and work colleagues and was unfairly dismissed from another job after not complying with her boss’s advances. At one job, she says, her managerial duties extended to contacting call girls for foreign clients, sitting with them in bars until the girls arrived and even translating the conversation until her boss gave her permission to leave.

When foreign clients visited her office to discuss a new contract, Ms. C was expected to pour drinks and translate for her male boss until he saw fit to change atmospheres. “To make a real nice mood, we had to go to ‘those’ bars.” She describes “those” bars as a hidden side of Korean corporate culture where women can be hired for entertainment. “(They) just made me pour the glasses and sometimes I had to translate the conversation as well,” she says. “My boss would secretly call me and say, ‘Now I think it’s OK, so you can go.’”

“At the very beginning, I cried because I’m a woman and they’re guys. I was actually afraid,” she says. “What if they just started flirting with me, or what if they started attacking me?” Like many other women, she tried to deal with the situation by telling herself to “just suck it up.”

On a separate occasion, her male boss sexually harassed her in a bar at an after-work gathering. In full view of her other colleagues, male and female, he kept insisting that they dance by holding her arms “tightly” and constantly trying to “grab” and “pull” her against him. She rejected his advances. Soon after the incident, she was dismissed from her job.

Changes to corporate culture

But Jung says that these kinds of incidents in the workplace have been dropping over the past few years as foreign business has more influence on office culture. “In my memory, the last five years were quite different,” she says. “That kind of push (to go out after work) from seniors is not going to happen anymore. Attending social dinners is mostly optional for employees. This is the big change in the culture as a result of doing business overseas..”

Jung welcomes this change, but she doesn’t think everyone will be so willing to embrace it. “Older employees may not be happy. Sometimes they may want to do the old-fashioned party,” she says.

With a large number of students studying abroad, Jung believes that managers will have to change their attitude to suit the shift in office culture. “Our company has hired more than 5,000 new employees who have just graduated from university. They are very young and a lot of them have studied overseas. So the older superiors need to change.”

Lee, 29, a male worker at an international company for five years, says that an obvious generation gap has emerged — and it is forcing a new culture into Korean companies. He works with 20 women who are all at the bottom level; he has still not seen a woman in his company take a top position. “I think companies have a preference for guys, but it will change when the young generation becomes management level. I’m pretty sure we will have female management at the highest level or in an important position,” he says.

One of the biggest changes, he says, is occurring in how employees view social work events.  “These days a lot of young people refuse it because we don’t care,” he says. A male senior’s inappropriate comments toward a young female employee during a hoesik led to an investigation by the HR department and ended with the senior being demoted to a lower-level job. This, says Lee, is a “strict” approach compared to how it would have been handled not too long ago.

There are other signs that the excessive drinking rooted in Korea’s business culture is starting to be reined in, with the country’s largest conglomerate leading the way. In 2012, Samsung introduced a policy known as “1-1-9” limiting the after-work staff dinner to one type of alcohol, one venue and a 9 p.m. cut-off time for alcohol. The move is part of a campaign to promote a healthier work environment. Earlier that year, ashtrays were removed from company buildings, and the electronics giant is now encouraging social events to be held in a more active, alcohol-free environment.

Top-down efforts to change the tide

Big businesses have recently been paving the way for more women in top positions, with women taking a slew of high-profile jobs in the past few years. In 2012, five Korean banks announced appointments of female executives, and Deutsche Bank Korea appointed its first female chief earlier this year. While this is a promising trend, women are still underrepresented in public institutions. In January 2013, it was reported that women accounted for 272 of the 2,993 directors at 288 public institutions, with only 16 of these agencies being run by female executives. Early last year, a group of lawmakers proposed a bill to implement a quota that would see women account for 30 percent of board members of state-run corporations and public organizations in five years — emphasizing how difficult it is for women to break the glass ceiling.

This issue did not go unnoticed by President Park. In her presidential campaign in 2012, Park pledged to increase employment by the end of her term. Then in June 2013, the Ministry of Employment announced its “Road Map to Achieve a 70 Percent Employment Rate,” which aims to create an average of 476,000 jobs annually by 2017 and, in the process, make the workplace more accessible to women. The road map aspires to encourage a work and life balance by creating decent part-time jobs that meet voluntary personal needs and is additionally free of discrimination and guarantees basic working conditions. It also aims to create 250,000 female-friendly social service jobs, reduce working hours and expand public and in-company child care services.

Samsung Group and Lotte both responded to Park’s call to get women back to work by offering flexible part-time positions with benefits included. In November last year, Samsung announced that it would create 6,000 high-level part-time jobs with accommodating work hours. However, in February it was reported that the conglomerate hired just over 1,000 women mainly in their 30s and 40s due to the underwhelming number of applicants.

Several government departments have come together to fulfill Park’s pledges, and 4.6 trillion won ($4.4 billion) has reportedly been allocated by the Ministry of Strategy and Finance this year for government projects related to supporting women in the workplace. New measures include replacing maternity leave and paternity leave with a single paternal leave, which will make it more attractive for men to take time off work. Women who decide not to take leave can instead opt to work a shorter workweek for 60 percent of their base salary for two years, an increase from 40 percent in the current system.

However, Song from the KWWA sees these government plans as a way to fulfill targets rather than to supply quality jobs. “The government has just limited (women’s) time and work ability,” she says. According to Song, government policy that reduces work hours is leaving fewer women with regular secure jobs and endorsing a patriarchal culture. “This opportunity by the government has limited a woman’s ability to work. They are focusing more on women raising their kids, not on their ability to work in society,” she says.

The new generation

A new generation of women is now entering Korea’s workforce. While their perception of a woman’s role in a corporation has changed since their parents’ generation, the discrimination that awaits them hardly has. Park Hee-won, a graduate student at Ewha Womans University, has already been warned by her family to prepare for gender discrimination when she enters the workforce. “My grandma still works in a company and every time I meet her, she’s like, ‘No matter how (great) of a degree you have, a master’s or a Ph.D., there’s this invisible ceiling and it’s difficult for you to go up (the corporate ladder), especially if you are planning to get married,’” she says. “One of the reasons I came to graduate school was I didn’t want to face discrimination when I get into a company.”

Ahn He-rim, a graduate student in Seoul who acquired most of her education abroad, says that while she receives encouragement from her parents to do what she wants, gender stereotypes are reinforced. “I have a younger brother and Mom says to him, ‘You have to have economic stability.’ And I say to her, ‘I’m a girl, I can make money too, better than him.’ She says, ‘I know that, but in this Korean society that’s not acceptable, and I don’t want you to face prejudice or discrimination because you tried to be different,’” she says.

While Ahn believes things are beginning to get better for working women in terms of maternity leave, she feels that Korean society is hindering further progress because it is still a young country. “We had to go through a war and colonization and building up our economy. We had to do those things first and rights came after,” she says. “It’s taking us a little bit more time because we are trying to do it in such a short period.”

For Park and Ahn, the inability to change the perception that a woman should quit her job to raise a family is further marred by a fear that society has placed on being different. Even with government efforts to make the corporate environment better for women, marriage still tops the list of reasons Korean women quit their job, according to a report released by the Federation of Korean Industries earlier this year.

Park Sang-eun, an illustrator, feels that she has been labeled an “outsider” for not adhering to the Korean female stereotype. At 37 she is divorced, has no children and feels that women are being forced to choose between having a career or having a family.

“My generation, we don’t think that we have to be a homemaker. We don’t think like that, but Korean companies and the government (think) if we have a job then we have to lose our children, or if we choose our children we have to lose our job,” she says.

In the midst of all this negativity, she says she feels that a change is happening, but is not sure if Korea is ready to embrace it just yet. “Koreans know that society is changing a lot, but they are following the same old rules,” she says.

She says she hopes for the day women are able to have more freedom to do what they want instead of following outdated traditions.

“Don’t say to us, ‘You must be a homemaker or get married soon,’” she says. “We just want to live our lives. Just let us live our lives.”


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