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South Korean Women Struggle in Workforce

Song Jung-a
Tuesday, 11 Jun 2013 | 10:53 PM ET
RunPhoto | The Image Bank | Getty Images

Mrs Kim has been thinking about quitting her job at a Seoul brokerage for a while, as she finds it hard to juggle her career and two pre-school children.

Like many South Korean office workers, Mrs Kim leaves home before 7am and returns after 7pm. While long work days are common in Korea – which has the longest working hours in the OECD – they are tough for mothers with young children.

(Read More: South Korean Builders Push Employees to Buy Unsold Apartments)

"Sometimes days pass by without even saying 'hi' to my children when I get too busy," says the 38-year-old. "Then I become more sceptical about continuing my work."

She is not alone. Korean women have to overcome many obstacles at work after marriage and child birth. On top of the long hours, the lack of childcare and the male-dominated business culture force many to leave the workforce.

While Park Geun-hye became South Korea's first female president this year, Korean women still occupy few senior positions in business and politics. Only about 10 per cent of all managerial positions are held by women, and the gender pay gap is 39 per cent, making it the highest in the OECD.

According to McKinsey, female representation on corporate boards is just 1 per cent, compared with 2 per cent in Japan and 8 per cent in China. Underscoring the challenges, most female Korean executives are either the children or grandchildren of the founders of their company.

"Many foreign executives say that Korean women seem to be smarter than men with high communication and adaptation skills," says Kim In-hye, head of the Seoul office of Russell Reynolds, an executive recruitment group. "However, many women here still work in the back office rather than the business front lines as they prefer stability to risk-taking."

The OECD cites the marginalisation of women as a key weakness in the Korean economy, which is struggling to return to higher growth. The country faces looming labour shortages, with the OECD forecasting a decline in the working age population from 2018 due to the low fertility rate – the lowest in the developed work with families having on average 1.2 children.

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Sakong Il, a former finance minister, says higher female participation in the labour force is essential to raise the country's economic growth potential above the current level of 3.5 per cent.

"The growth potential has been declining too rapidly. How can you accelerate the speed [of economic growth]?" he asks. "Fortunately, there is a female workforce, which is not fully utilized at this point. We have to, as a society, should make every effort to achieve higher female workers' participation."

Women have made great strides in educational attainment with as many young women as men possessing a university degree. But the female employment rate remains about the same as two decades ago at just 55 per cent, much lower than the OECD average of 65 per cent. The figure is lower than even Japan's 62 per cent and far below China's 74 per cent.

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McKinsey says Korean women face the greatest pressure in Asia to leave their jobs and take care of their children once they have a family.

"You have to be a superwoman to continue your career as everything related to housework and childcare are seen as women's responsibility," says Kim Jung-sook, the head of Korean National Council of Women, a civic group that promotes women's rights.

Although Ms Park sets a powerful precedent as the nation's first female leader, Korean women still find it hard to smash the glass ceiling.

More than 80 per cent of Korean female executives recently surveyed by Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm, said there was an invisible ceiling blocking their upward progression.

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Mrs Oh, a 41-year-old housewife who used to work for a big telecoms company, took voluntary redundancy several years ago because she received the lowest grade in a performance review after her maternity leave.

"I had to fight hard to get one year of maternity leave, which was quite exceptional," she says. "But the lowest performance review was waiting for me after that. My boss said I contributed too little to the company."

The government is trying to address such problems by tackling workplace discrimination and boosting childcare funding. It has prioritised making business culture more family friendly and is beefing up childcare services as part of a plan to nurture a talent pool of 100,000 professional women by 2017, compared with 30,000 at the end of last year.

(Read More: South Korea Sets Modest Stimulus Spending)

But experts such as Kim Young-OK, a researcher at Korean Women's Development Institute, a private research institute, caution that unless Korea's Confucian traditions and deeply ingrained chauvinistic culture do not change, such policy reforms will have limited effects.

"The rules and systems are already there, but it will take a long time for such business culture to change to allow women to stay in work."

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