When Moon Su-jong, a web designer at a midsize South Korean chaebol, or conglomerate, joined a late-night company booze-up and declined alcohol, her bosses guessed that she was pregnant.
Far from congratulating her, they were outraged. They berated her for burdening her colleagues, who would have to shoulder her work in her absence, and asked her when she would quit.
Moon complained to the human-resources manager, who agreed that she was harming the company by getting pregnant. Her boss added that the firm should hire more men. She quit five months later. She left her next employer, too, after her second baby. Her mother-in-law was no longer able to help out with the child care, so Moon went freelance.
Such experiences are so common in South Korea that they are the subject of a new television drama, “Working Mum, House Daddy.” Its spunky protagonist, Mi-so, struggles to combine long, rigid work hours with child care. She loses out on a promotion to a colleague whose mother-in-law looks after her grandchild.
Women in South Korea find it hard to juggle family and a career. In a poll of 3,000 firms last year, more than 80 percent of private ones said that only one-third of female employees returned to work after maternity leave. Public policy is not the problem. South Korean law requires that private companies offer one year of paid maternity leave. Park Geun-hye, the first woman to lead an East Asian country when she assumed South Korea’s presidency in 2013, has vowed to create 1.7 million jobs for women, lift their employment rate by seven percentage points, to 62 percent, and name and shame companies with too few female employees.
But many South Koreans are reluctant to accept that women have careers, and firms often fail to accommodate the needs of working mothers. The share of working-age South Korean women who have jobs crept above 50 percent in 2000, and has risen only five percentage points in the past two decades. The gap between the median earnings of men and women in full-time employment is the worst in the OECD, a group of mostly rich countries. Working women are paid only 63 percent of what working men get.
Some South Koreans argue that men need jobs more than women, since they are the chief breadwinners. Man of Korea, a male-rights group, wants to abolish the country’s Ministry of Gender and Family, which it says oppresses men, for example by creating women-only parking spaces.
That South Korea now has men’s-rights groups is a sign that women have made advances — men no longer take their dominance for granted. As recently as 1990, sex-selective abortions stemming from a Confucian preference for sons meant that 117 boys were born for every 100 girls. Girls often left school and took menial jobs to support their brothers’ education. Now the cultural preference has reversed: more parents say they would prefer daughters, and the sex ratio at birth is normal again. Three-quarters of women go to university, compared with two-thirds of men.
But the workplace has been slow to adapt, and huge numbers of capable female candidates are being overlooked or sidelined.
Women have started to fight back. In January an employee at a brewery in the conservative city of Daegu sued her boss for forcing her to resign before her marriage. And foreign firms in South Korea have seen an opportunity. Since female talent is undervalued, it is relatively cheap. A study in 2010 found that foreign multinationals hire lots of South Korean women with degrees, and that this boosts their return on assets.
One way to make it easier for working mothers would be for their husbands to do more at home. Currently South Korean women do 83 percent of unpaid work; U.S. women do 62 percent. The law promotes a fairer division of labor: South Korean fathers are entitled to 53 weeks of paid paternity leave — more than any others in the OECD. Yet barely 2 percent used any of it in 2014.
Many fathers — 64 percent of male employees surveyed in 2014 — said they would share the burden of child care if only it became socially acceptable and financially possible.
With a fertility rate of around 1.2 babies per woman, South Korea’s labor force is set to shrink dramatically.
If the country fails to make use of half its talent pool, stagnation looms.
Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.