Ever since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office at the Blue House, the ratio of female cabinet members has increased to 30 percent from 11.7 percent. In comparison to the past, women’s social status in the political sector is showing progress. In the private sector, however, such changes are not so clearly seen. Women in Korea still suffer employment, income, and promotion disparities that are rooted in their almost assured career break and Korean society’s view towards women’s traditional roles. Although the government has passed a parental leave policy in hopes of the betterment of women’s status in the workplace, its effectiveness is still viewed skeptically. Amidst the time when Korean female workers endure unfair treatment, The Argus has looked into the underlying factors that has allowed discrepancies to happen.
Inequality in employment
Women’s efforts to make strides in the workplace are initially hindered by the employment process. According to the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, in 2016, female employment was at 56.2 percent whereas male employment was at 75.8 percent.
This gap is not just a one-time phenomenon. Based on data from the National Statistical office, this gender employment rate gap has persisted since 2000. Considering that women have caught up with men in education, and at times even surpassed men in educational achievement, it is surprising that the difference in employment has remained so large. Such polarity in employment implies that there may have been gender discrimination involved.
Additionally, as stated in data announced by the Ministry of Employment in March, there were 27 companies that have not made improvements in female employment procedures despite the government’s strong suggestions. Among them, 12 were major firms with more than 1,000 employees.
Twenty-seven companies were revealed then, but according to the Ministry of Employment, there are many more that have failed to meet female employment standards. There were 734 corporations that have not met with the standards for three consecutive years, and 241 of those were targeted as “urgent need for improvement.” Even glimpsing the statistics, it can be seen that women are not at the same starting line with men.
You may have heard that females earn less than what males would earn in their lifetimes. This is true, and in Korea’s case, this gap widens as age increases. Although this discrepancy is hardly a problem unique to Korea, the country has been marked as the number one country for 14 years that has the worst gender wage disparity, according to the OECD data in 2016.
In most of the cases, the gap started to widen during people’s 30s, the age in which marriage and child care often occurs. During this time, according to the same data provided by the Ministry of Employment, women often used their parental leave and this implied some correlation with women’s downfall in wages compared to men.
It is difficult to gather specific data due to parental leave or other gender issues, as corporations blur the data. However, there has been some testimony as evidenced by interviews done by Saramin, a wants columns website, which suggests that employees were often pressured by their higher ups against using parental leave, or were persuaded to resign voluntarily.
Another cause for the wage gap is that lots of companies employ female workers in temporary positions. Workers in temporary positions receive lower wages than those in a permanent position. Even worse, these part-timers are not well protected by labor laws, and are often discharged after several years. This has made it unlikely for female workers to climb up the ladder and contributed to making the payment gap stagnant. As reported by the Ministry of Statistics in June 2016, among 842,300 female workers, 40 percent of them were temporary workers whereas the ratio was only 25.9 percent for male workers.
“The wage gap between men and women is largely due to lopsided temporary worker ratios,” said the Minister of Gender Equality and Family Jeong Hyun-baek, adding strength to the argument.
“Glass ceiling” is a metaphor for the hard-to-see informal barrier that keeps women from getting promotions and other benefits within a company that men often times easily could.
According to the Economist, in 2016, Korean female managers were only three percent of the number of total managers. Considering that the OECD average is 20 percent, Korea is far from being fair to female employees.
The causation for this varies and is often times “unseen” as it is not just always about data.
Park Ki-nam, professor of Social Science at Hallym University, underscored the “unseen” aspect of the problem, claiming that there are some indications of job separation based on gender in corporations.
Females are often assigned to marketing and secretary positions whereas men are often assigned to accounting and managerial control. The point here is that the departments that women are often assigned to did not produce many managers. This indicates that even from the start, women are meant to face a glass ceiling that makes it difficult for them to ascend to a manager position.
“Female workers often strongly feel the presence of a glass ceiling during the process of promotion from section chief to a head of a department,” said Son Ju-young, a professor at Kwangwoon University.
The low manager rate of females did not just happen by chance.
Low male participation in parental leave
Ironically, male participation in parental leave is crucial in making female disparities diminish. As of now, parental leave is thought of that preferential to women.
The data from the Ministry of Employment in 2016 shows that male participation was only at 4.5 percent. It is from this perception that women have to struggle juggling both childcare and work. Eventually not being able to handle both, a lot of women choose childcare over work and quit their jobs.
In order to change the perception that infant care is the work of women and to lessen their burden, male employees’ increased participation is needed. By achieving this, the environment of workplace would become friendlier to those signing up for parental leave.
Corporates are displeased with parental leave
One of the factors that causes females to be evaluated lower than males in the workplace is their high likelihood of leaving their jobs. Women are often bound to temporarily leave their workplaces to take of their children.
As a part of this process, corporations have to guarantee their employment and payment equivalent to 40 percent of their monthly income. It is a burden for corporations to provide money without labor, but finding a replacement for their position is also a burden, which is why corporations often do not treat female employees like their male counterparts.
As a result, this hinders workers both male and female from freely asking for parental leave. According to the employment website Career, 61 percent of 217 office workers said parental leave is not freely used.
It cannot be said that the gender discrepancy women endure in their workplaces is entirely rooted in factors that the parental leave policy has failed to cover. A lot of it has also to do with how our society views women.
Right now, lots of remnants of the former patriarchal society still remain. What is unfortunate is that a lot of that is still reflected strongly in workplaces; this may be why women are often assigned to supporting roles working under male managers. What is more, according to professor Son, stereotypes of gender roles still exist in corporations. This has led higher ups to unnecessarily point out female employees’ attitudes more often than those of male employees.’ Stereotypes pervade in lots of work areas, and this makes women workers go through difficult times.
Expanding financial support for the applicants
In order to increase male participation rate under parental leave, there should be an increase in their payment.
Currently, 40 percent of their monthly payment is provided during parental leave. For the applicants who have to take care of their families, this is often not enough. Therefore, for males, they have no choice but to stick to working.
According to A.J. Smith’s paper on parental leave “Supporting Male Parenting,” a higher amount of compensation had a direct correlation with increased male participation. To make this happen in Korea, the compensation needs to be increased to 60 percent of one’s regular income. To accomplish this, the Ministry of Employment should increase their budget to support corporations in paying their parental leave applicants.
Appeasing to corporates' loss
Corporations should be provided with incentives to accept parental leave applications without strains. Providing parental leave inevitably causes loss for corporates. It is important to minimize this loss and provide corporations with motivation.
One possible way to do this is by adopting what Japan already has: male parental leave promotion money. By evaluating how many male workers have signed up for parental leave, the Japanese government provides corporations with monetary support.
In terms of adopting it, the incentive can be anything from tax reduction to financial assistance. What is important is that there be an encouragement for giving paternity leaves. On the same note, there should also be increased support for replacement aid as well. Currently companies are provided 300,000 Korean won (US$266.16) monthly for employees who are on their parental leaves. In order to find a qualified replacement, the aid should be increased, and the government should set an inspection to ascertain the money was used for finding a fitting replacement.
Reshaping our mindset
Changes in policies are important. However, perception toward females should be improved as well. In order to achieve this, there should be an education program in companies that helps managers and workers to have a socially acceptable view toward all workers. Although it is difficult to expect immediate change from education, as perception is an accumulation of one’s experience, there should still be efforts from workers and companies to break down this ongoing discrepancy.
As for us, it is necessary that we foster the habit of looking at everyone equally regardless of their gender or other backgrounds. After all, only we can help women to have better working conditions in the near future.
At a glance, it seems that women are under the law and system’s protection, and their discrimination is, to a certain extent, rationalized. However, the inside fact is that women still suffer inequality from the blind spots of the system, in this case: parental leave. Even worse, people hardly find this discrepancy a problem but view it as a social norm, making it harder for work environments to improve. It is essential that the government make sure the loopholes of the system get covered in consideration of corporations and their beneficiaries. Most importantly however, the real equality can only start when people truly realize the gravity of ongoing gender discrepancy.
Reporter of National Section