Korea’s intense corporate culture and its social norms that delegate to women the overriding responsibility of managing the household and raising children drive many Korean women from the workforce once they marry or have children.1 Working mothers in Korea struggle to balance work life and family life, and this struggle often leaves them with little to no personal time.2 The Korean government, however, is helping to lead the effort to address these factors and to encourage the advancement of women in the workplace.
The country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) was originally established in 2001 to address issues of gender discrimination.3 MOGEF’s present focus is designing policies that promote work-life balance with the goal of enabling women with families to sustain careers, and ultimately to lead to more female executives in top management positions and leadership roles.4 Despite these initiatives, the employment rate of women within the managerial ranks in Korea remains low, and the pay disparity between men and women is high.
Korea has made some significant breakthroughs in recent years with respect to the presence of women in politics. In 2013, the country swore in its first female president, Park Geun-hye, following a historic election.5 Park’s victory was largely viewed as an endorsement of her economic agenda, however, rather than her proposed agenda for helping women.6 In spite of initial skepticism, Park pledged to lift the female employment rate from 53.5% to 61.9% by 2018, and her administration initially championed several measures designed to increase female participation in the workforce.7
President Park’s agenda was cut short when she was impeached by the South Korean Parliament in December 2016, and her powers as president were suspended.8 Park was officially stripped of her office by South Korea’s Constitutional Court, which upheld the Parliament’s impeachment, and she was arrested in March 2017 for multiple counts of abuse of power, bribery, and coercion.9 Former President Park was sentenced to 24 years in prison on April 6, 2018.10
Park’s successor, President Moon Jae-in, has called for more gender parity in the South Korean corporate and political spheres. After pledging to make women at least 30% of his Cabinet, President Moon fulfilled his promise by appointing six women to minister positions, comprising 32% of the Cabinet, more than any previous administration.11
South Korea ranked 118 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap Index.12 The country ranked third-to-last out of the 18 countries in the East Asia and Pacific region.13 Women made up 48.1% of professional and technical workers, but only 10.5% of legislators, senior officials, and managers.14 According to a 2014 survey by MOGEF, while women in their twenties tend to fare well in labor market participation, the participation rate drops sharply for women in their thirties due in part to marriage, childbirth, and childcare.15 In fact, 17.8% of women in the workforce were employed part-time in 2017, and 45.4% of women’s daily work was unpaid labor (as compared to only 9.6% of men’s daily work).16These trends result in very few women occupying top public and private sector positions. In 2014, women held only 3.2% of all senior government positions in Korea, and a mere 1.2% of corporate senior management positions.17
Female executives held 4.1% of board seats in 2017, a number that held steady from 2016, but is a jump from only 2.4% in 2013 and 1.6% in 2014.18
Korean women have been represented in the lower ranks of the government bureaucracy over the past two decades. In 1996, the Korean government instituted a quota requiring that women comprise at least 30% of new hires in all government departments (except the police and military).19 The system was so successful that by 2010 the government began applying a minimum 30% quota to men.20 In 2017, the South Korean government announced that it was planning to gradually increase women’s participation in more senior positions in the government and in public institutions. According to the Minister of Gender Equality and Family, “the government will raise the ratio of female civil servants ranked at grade 4 or higher to 15 percent” by the end of 2017, whereas it stood at 13.5% in 2016.21 The government also sought to increase the proportion of women on various central government committees to 40 percent, which is the percentage mandated by South Korean law.22
The Korean Constitution guarantees equality at law for men and women.29 Article 11 provides that “all citizens shall be equal before the law, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, civic or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status.”30 Article 36(1) states that “marriage and family life shall be entered into and sustained on the basis of individual dignity and equality of the sexes.”31 The Korean Constitution specifically prohibits unjust discrimination against women in the areas of employment, wages, and working conditions, and requires the State to promote the welfare and rights of women.32
In 1995, Korea passed the Framework Act on Women’s Development “to promote the equality between men and women in all the areas of politics, economy, society and culture and to facilitate the women’s development.”33 The Korean National Assembly passed a complete revision of the act on May 2, 2014, with the name changed to the Framework Act on Gender Equality.34 The focus of the revised Act is on realizing gender equality in practical and measurable ways.35 The Act, which took effect on July 1, 2015, institutes a quota for women in executive and senior positions aimed at enhancing female representation.36 According to the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the quotas are evaluated and redeveloped every five years in order to realize the goals of the Act.37 One result of the Act was the expansion of the Women Leaders Database, a resource for government committees and executive boards of public institutions to identify women with particular talents and career accomplishments.
In the corporate context, the obstacles women face in management stem more from cultural and familial pressures than from a lack of legislative support. For example, Korean law requires firms of a certain size to offer three months of paid maternity leave.38 However, many female workers are reluctant to take advantage of this benefit due to the competitive nature of the country’s corporate environment, where taking maternity leave is viewed as an impediment to becoming a senior manager.39
There is no standalone corporate governance code in Korea.40 Corporate governance is mainly regulated by the country’s Commercial Code and the Financial Investment Services and Capital Markets Act (FISCMA) for listed companies.41 Although there are no requirements for the gender composition of corporate boards, listed companies must disclose the gender of their directors in their corporate disclosure information.42
In 2014, Korea launched a Task Force on Gender Parity and Empowerment of Women, the country’s first private-public partnership aimed at promoting gender equality and capitalizing on female talent.43 The task force consists of over 100 organizations from the public and private sectors.44 The task force is partnering with MOGEF on various initiatives designed to support and encourage family-friendly workplace policies, such as a two-track paternity leave system under which the government will subsidize paternity leave and provide financial support to companies that need to hire temporary replacements for staff on childcare leave.45 The Korean government also gives loans or subsidies to businesses that allow women to work less than full time, re-employ women returning from maternity leave, and build childcare facilities, which more than half of Korean businesses now provide.46
In 2014, former President Park’s administration championed a “name-and-shame” policy in which the government publicly identified companies with low female employment levels.47 The government also stated its intent to give preferential treatment to “family-friendly” companies seeking government contracts.48 Park’s administration set targets to have female managers make up at least 15% of central government managers and 18.6% of state-run enterprise managers by 2017.49
As noted above, President Moon Jae-in has called for more gender parity in the South Korean corporate and political spheres—and has appointed six women to minister positions, comprising 32% of the Cabinet, more than any previous administration.50 As a result, South Korean women have enjoyed increased political empowerment and control over government functions.
Despite robust support from the government, progress for women in Korea is slow. As a 2017 study by Deloitte notes, a first step toward robust change in Korea would be implementing measures that make it easier to have both a career and a family, such as increasing accessibility for childcare.51 Women in Korea echo this sentiment.52 In addition, for gender equity to become a reality, men in Korea “have an important role to play in promoting and advocating for gender equality in the boardroom.”53
2 Working Mothers Struggle to Meet Demands: Balancing Duties of Home and the Office Come at a Cost, Korea JoongAng Daily (Apr. 26, 2018), http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3047389.
3 About MOGEF: History, http://www.mogef.go.kr/eng/am/eng_am_f005.do (last visited Sept. 13, 2018).
4 Kanga Kong, Q&A: Minister Emphasizes the Importance of Work-Life Balance,Wall Street Journal (Jan. 24, 2014), http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2014/01/24/qa-minister-emphasizes-the-importance-of-work-life-balance/; Jiyeun Lee, South Korea Wants Its Women to Lean In To Workforce After Childbirth, Bloomberg (Feb. 25, 2015), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-25/challenging-gender-inequality-in-south-korea.
5 See Profile: South Korean President Park Geun-hye,BBC (Nov. 1, 2013), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-20787271; Chico Harlan, In ‘Madam Park,’ S. Korea sees its first potential female leader, Washington Post (Dec. 17, 2012), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-madame-park-s-korea-sees-its-first-potential-female-leader/2012/12/17/4d91b344-4825-11e2-b6f0-e851e741d196_story.html.
7 South Korea pushes for gender equality,Taipei Times (Feb. 5, 2014), http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/world/archives/2014/02/05/2003582798.
8 Choe Sang-Hun, South Korea Removes President Park Geun-hye, N.Y. Times (Mar. 9, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/world/asia/park-geun-hye-impeached-south-korea.html.
9 Paula Hancocks, Yoonjung Seo & James Griffiths, Former South Korean President Park Sentenced to 24 Years in Prison, CNN (Apr. 6, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/06/asia/south-korea-park-geun-hye-corruption-intl/index.html?no-st=1523429072.
11 Jiyeun Lee, Korea Beats Japan and China to Get Women into Power, Bloomberg (Sept. 28, 2017), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-28/corporate-korea-is-far-behind-moon-s-push-for-gender-equality.
12 The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, World Economic Forum 11 (2017),http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2017.pdf.
13 Id. at 16.
14 Id. at 198.
15 Taipei Times, supra note 7; see also Lee Myung-sun, New paradigm of gender equality starts now,Korea Herald (July 5, 2015), http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150705000319.
16 World Economic Forum, supra note 12, at 199.
17 Kong, supra note 4.
18 Women in the boardroom: A global perspective, Deloitte 27 (2017), https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/risk/articles/women-in-the-boardroom5th-edition.html; The CS Gender 3000: The Reward for Change, Credit Suisse (2016), https://glg.it/assets/docs/csri-gender-3000.pdf.
19 Sang-Hun, supra note 1.
21 Gov’t to Expand Women’s Presence in High-Level Positions, Yonhap News (Apr. 17, 2017), http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2017/04/17/0302000000AEN20170417007400315.html.
23 South Korea, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/south-korea (last visited Sept. 7, 2018).
24 Gender wage gap, OECD (2017), https://data.oecd.org/earnwage/gender-wage-gap.htm (last visited Sept. 13, 2018).
27 Myung-sun, supra note 15.
28 Credit Suisse, supra note 18, at 199.
29 Rosa Kim, The Legacy of Institutionalized Gender Inequality in South Korea: The Family Law,14 B.C. Third World L.J. 145 (1994), http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1269&context=twlj.
30 Korea Const., art. 11.
31 Id. at art. 36(1).
32 Id. at arts. 32(4), 34(3).
33 Framework Act on Women’s Development, http://www.moleg.go.kr/english/korLawEng?pstSeq=47573 (English translation).
34 Myung-sun, supra note 8.
36 Kim Soohee, Assembly passed the Framework Act on Gender Equality, Women’s News (May 16, 2014), http://www.wnewsworld.com/news/640#.Va1njflVhBc.
37 Gender Equality Policy, Ministry of Equality and Family, http://www.mogef.go.kr/eng/pc/eng_pc_f001.do (last visited Sept. 7, 2018).
38 Park, supra note 1.
39 Id.; see also Sang-Hun, supra note 1.
40 Hyung Soo Lee et al., Corporate governance and directors’ duties in South Korea: overview, Practical Law (current as of Dec. 1, 2014), http://uk.practicallaw.com/8-209-5002.
43 Overview, Task Force on Gender Parity and Empowerment of Women, http://genderparity.go.kr/en/encontent.do?cid=introduce01 (last visited July 29, 2015).
45 Kim Hee-jung, Q&A: How is South Korea closing the gender gap?,World Economic Forum (Mar. 6, 2015), https://agenda.weforum.org/2015/03/qa-how-is-south-korea-closing-the-gender-gap/.
46 Claudia Süssmuth-Dyckerhoff et al., Women Matter: An Asian Perspective, McKinsey & Co. (June 2012), http://www.mckinsey.com/features/women_matter.
47 Taipei Times, supra note 7.
49 Lee, supra note 4.
50 Lee, supra note 11.
51 Deloitte, supra note 18, at 27.
52 Lee Serah, Heard in Seoul: Gender Inequality in South Korea,Wall Street Journal (Feb. 11, 2015), http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2015/02/11/heard-in-seoul-gender-inequality-in-south-korea/tab/interactive/.
53 Deloitte, supra note 18, at 27.