YANG Hyunsoo, Director for Safety and Health Inspection Planning - Ministry of Employment and Labor
Korea is known to many as quite a success story, as a country that rose from the ashes of war to become one of the world’s top economies. Nevertheless, despite our efforts, we have not yet made it to a level on a par with our GDP or trade volume in terms of gender equality. We know from our own history that social customs are far more difficult to change than an economic structure. When it comes to gender equality, this is especially true. Given the longstanding practices of the division of labor between the sexes, which are deeply rooted in the minds of many people, there is little doubt that changing perceptions of the traditional role of women requires significant time and effort. Some Koreans still call a wife Djip-saram, which means a home person, while naming a husband Bakat-Yangban, a man outside, which signifies a stereotyped perception that women should stay home rearing children and doing unpaid work. Nonetheless, the perception has changed significantly, though not as dramatically as Korea’s economic development.
In October 2019 a Korean movie entitled, “Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982,” based on a novel written by Ms. Cho Nam-joo, was released, and provoked a controversy on the gender-equality issue in Korean society. Some argue that the movie, or the novel, exaggerated the reality. Others say that it is the tip of iceberg and that gender-based bias in Korean society is far more serious than described in the movie. In any case, I believe that despite wide differences, both sides share the view that although Korea has made significant achievements in enhancing gender equality, especially after joining the OECD in 1996, it still has a long way to go in comparison with most other OECD members.
Over the past six decades, the size of the Korean economy grew about 800 times, from USD$2 billion in 1961 to USD$1.6 trillion in 2019. There is little doubt that the remarkable economic development has affected, to a great extent, the role of women in the economy and the social perception of this.
Early stage of Korea’s economic growth. Around the time the OECD was established 60 years ago, the Korean government started its export-driven economic growth under the title of the first five-year national economic-development plan. Nonetheless, it is not sufficiently recognised that in the shadow of this miraculous growth in 1960s and 1970s, many unsung heroines sacrificed to put this growth engine into motion day and night. These Korean women had to work in factories manufacturing textiles, apparel, shoes, and electronic goods under extremely poor working conditions and for low pay. Korean women’s labour-force participation rate almost doubled, from 26.8% in 1960 to 46.7% in 1975. Although many were young, unskilled, and uneducated women, they played a pivotal role in successfully launching Korean products into the world market in the nation’s initial stage of economic development.
From mid-1970s to early 1990s. With the change of the trade structure toward heavy and chemical industry from the mid-1970s, many Korean women workers had to return home and to school, largely due to the government policy focusing on men’s participation in the manufacturing industry. As a result, the labour-force participation rate of women continuously fell, to 43.9% in 1984. Especially, that of young women of 15 to 19 years old dropped drastically, from 34.4% in 1980 to 18.7% in 1990. Although this took away job opportunities for many Korean girls, the change of industrial structure also gave them the opportunity to study more. Moreover, with the rapid industrialisation and active government birth-control policy, the aggregate fertility rate of the Korean population dropped sharply, from 4.5 in 1970 to 1.6 in 1989. Couples started to have just one or two children, providing them with an equal opportunity for education regardless of their sex. This contributed significantly to narrowing the gender gap in education while providing some highly educated women with job opportunities as professionals.
Since Joining the OECD. Around the time Korea joined the OECD 25 years ago, the Korean economy grew to become an integral part of global value chains across sectors ranging from semi-conductors, shipbuilding, petro-chemicals, electronics, and automobiles. After joining the OECD, Korea continued to open its markets and upgrade its economic structure with guidance from the OECD. Korea’s per capita GDP increased from 6% of the OECD average in 1970 to 97% in 2019. With the globalisation of the Korean economy, the employment of Korean women has continuously increased. Their labour-force participation rate rose from 49% in 1990 to 60% in 2019—mainly in the service sector—an increase of more than 10%, although it is still somewhat low compared with the OECD average of 65%.
Nonetheless, it is believed that this has contributed significantly to enhancing the gender equality of Korean society and changing the social perception on the role of women in it. According to the gender-equality index published by the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, shown in the following graph (Figure 3), Korean women’s participation in society and social perceptions of this continuously improved over a five-year period.
Behind this Korean achievement over the past 25 years, there has been the OECD. OECD work on gender equality has helped the Korean government objectively evaluate the situation and has provided a guideline for Korea’s efforts toward enhancing gender equality. Since 2012, the OECD has focused its efforts on helping member countries pursue inclusive growth. Gender equality has always been an essential element to consider in OECD projects. Owing to the cross-sectorial nature of the issue, the organisation has been addressing the gender-equality in a whole-of-OECD manner. Recently, it has carried out many significant analyses and produced excellent publications on gender equality. Since it published a comprehensive report on gender equality in 2011 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the OECD’s establishment, the organisation has been producing in-depth and sectorial publications on the gender issue almost annually, including “Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, 2012’ and ‘The Pursuit of Gender Equality, An Uphill Battle, 2017.”
The OECD Ministerial Council Meeting adopted ‘The Recommendation on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship’ in 2013 and ‘The Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life’ in 2015. Furthermore, in cooperation with the G20, the OECD, together with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has been making efforts to set the global standards on gender equality. For example, it has played a significant role by presenting objective data to national leaders in adopting the 2014 Brisbane G20 Leaders’ Communiqué, which aims to reduce the gender gap in labour-participation rates by 25% by 2025. The OECD has also produced many data and statistics on gender equality. In 2012, the organisation established the gender statistics portal (https://www.oecd.org/gender/data/), providing comprehensive gender-based data on education, employment, entrepreneurship, development and health. In 2015, the Network on Gender Equality, GENDERNET, was established under the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), in order to prioritize gender equality in the development agenda. The OECD Development Centre has produced comprehensive comparative gender data of 180 countries through the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) (http://genderindex.org/).
Why has the OECD focused so much on gender equality? The Organisation views the issue as not only an important one having a vast impact on all aspects of our lives, but also an urgent one that needs to be addressed immediately. According to the OECD publication entitled “Measuring the Distance to the SDG Targets 2019,” SDG 5, the global goal related to gender equality, was one of the furthest from being achieved by member countries even before the COVID-19 crisis. There is no doubt that the pandemic has made the distance even further.
As the OECD is an organisation whose most important comparative advantage is its evidence-based analysis and recommendations, it is meaningful to look at Korea’s footsteps in gender equality with the OECD data in order to evaluate the current situation objectively and lead Korean society in the right direction. According to OECD analyses, gender equality is an especially urgent issue for Korea. In the aforementioned OECD publication “Measuring the Distance to the SDG Targets,” Korea is furthest from SDG 5. Nevertheless, the OECD data also show that there has been significant improvement in Korea, especially in the education sector. Korean women’s enrollment rate in higher education has increased remarkably, outpacing men’s since 2013. In 2020, women’s enrollment rate was 71.3%, 5% higher than that of their male counterparts.
This achievement in the education sector is believed to be the one of the most important foundations for achieving gender equality in the future Korean society. Although the age group of 55 or older shows a significant gender gap, no significant gap is seen in the high-school graduation rate of the younger generation, indicating a bright future in Korea’s endeavour to narrow the gender gap.
This remarkable achievement in the education sector has not been sufficiently transferred to the economy, however, including the labour market. What is particularly worrisome is the wage gap in Korea. Despite a modest improvement over the past decades, Korea has the highest wage gap among the OECD members: Korean women are paid a third less on average than their male counterparts.
Nonetheless, what is promising for future Korean generations is that the gap is narrowing. In the case of people in their twenties with a similar educational level and tenure at work, there is little or even a negative gender pay gap, showing that the gap according to education level has almost disappeared.
Overall, many women work as professionals. More than 60% of teachers, including university professors, are women. The percentage of women among members of government committees more than doubled from 2010 to 2020, reaching more than 40% for the first time. The share of female ministers also reached over 33% in 2020. Female-led businesses have continuously increased, reaching 1.4 million and accounting for about 40% as of 2017.
Despite these achievements over the past 25 years in gender equality, Korea is still lagging behind most other OECD members. Furthermore, the past success has presented many new challenges for the Korean society. While Korea registered a remarkable economic achievement through market liberalisation, this also placed Korea in the forefront of global challenges such as digitalisation, ageing, and inequality, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. The benefits of the economic growth have not been evenly shared. A widening gap between those who are financially well-off and those who are not is widening. Although Korea became the most digitalised country, rapid digitalisation accelerated by the COVID-19 has threatened the livelihood of many workers, especially women—who are mostly concentrated in the service sector, SMEs, and non-regular employment—have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Meanwhile, women who have reliable jobs with permanent labour contracts in solid industries often tend to postpone marriage and parenthood, further reducing Korea’s fertility rate. According to the OECD report “Rejuvenating Korea: Policies for a Changing Society (2019)”, although the increase in educational attainment helped Korean women gain access to more job opportunities, it has also contributed to the sharp decline of the marriage and fertility rate by increasing the opportunity cost of marriage for many women.
These intertwined challenges are a Gordian knot. Gender equality is a central issue of this conundrum, and Korean women are on the frontline of the struggle. As it is interlinked with many social and economic issues, policy measures enhancing gender equality benefit not only women, but also those who are underprivileged. Therefore, enhancing gender equality should be approached in a broader context of addressing the mega-challenges that Korea is currently confronting. Unless these challenges are properly addressed before it is too late, true advancement of Korea will remain elusive.
In order to help address these challenges, the OECD has recommended that the Korean government adopt various policy measures. For example, the recently published OECD report entitled “Inclusive Growth Review of Korea: 2021” presents such policy options as i) strengthening the use of maternity and parental leave, ii) increasing the availability of high-quality child care and enhancing workplace flexibility to improve work-life balance, and iii) facilitating women’s return to work after an absence from the labour market and establishing an education environment that supports fertility.
These recommendations are well aligned with those the Korean government has been taking to enhance gender equality. Firstly, the government has been continuously encouraging a parental-leave system, with about USD$ 1 billion for parental leave allowances in 2020. The growth in the number of paternal leaves has been striking, from only 355 cases in 2008 to 27,000 in 2020.
Secondly, in accordance with the OECD recommendations, the government has been focusing its efforts on reducing the burden of child-rearing, which is the biggest factor in women's career breaks, the wage gap, and the low fertility rate. The strong social perception that women should prioritise family over work can push them to give up their careers in a situation where child-rearing and housework conflict with their job, even for well-educated women. To address this, in 2018 the Korean government announced the “low fertility and ageing society policy road map” for the period to 2022, which focuses on gender equality in the workplace and gives parents more time in the private sphere. By continuously expanding public child-care centres, which are favoured over private ones, the utilisation rate of these centres has continued to increase, from 21.4% in 2015 to 40% in 2021; after-school care services in elementary schools and visiting child care services are also provided.
Thirdly, various measures are being implemented to prevent working mothers from sacrificing their career. For example, as of 2019 the number of women’s re-employment centres increased to 158 nationwide thanks to the government’s effort to support women experiencing a career interruption due to marriage, pregnancy, or child care. In particular, the centres offer vocational education for high-value-added occupations to help career-interrupted women enter into the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) areas and other promising sectors.
Lastly, the Korean government is also putting diverse efforts into gender mainstreaming. The Framework Act on Gender Equality was revised in 2014, under which various policies designed to enhance the status of women were implemented. A gender-impact analysis and assessment was introduced in 2004 and enacted in 2011, making it mandatory to conduct the assessment for all laws and regulations as well as central and local governments’ plans and projects. As a result, some 2,600 policy improvements were made in 2018 alone. In 2006, gender-responsive budgeting was introduced to ensure national financial resources can be evenly distributed for both women and men, and this became mandatory for central-government agencies in 2010 and local-government bodies in 2013.
With the help of the OECD, Korea has continuously strived to achieve a gender-equal society and will continue to do so. As seen in the foregoing data, Korea has come a long way. What is more certain, however, is that it has a longer way to go. In order to successfully overcome the current challenges that Korean society currently confronts, employing these very educated but underutilised human resources is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.
The author was counsellor for employment, labor and social affairs at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Korea to the OECD from August 2018 to August 2021.
Population and Housing Census Korea (1960, 1975).
stats.oecd.org (LFS by sex and age- indicators).
stats.oecd.org (LFS by sex and age- indicators).