Gender (in)equality in Korean firms: results from stakeholders interviews.

Author:Patterson, Louise


Despite legal improvements in women's rights since 1988 and increased access to education in the past fifty years for women, female labor participation in Korea as of 2011 stood at 49.2%, one of the lowest rates for an OECD country (Korean National Statistical Office (KNSO) 2011). In 2010, young Korean women surpassed males in attaining higher education, but they have not made proportionate advances in employment equity (Eun and Yoon 2010; Joo and Lee 2009). Existing literature suggests that cultural explanations have greatly influenced the characteristics of Korean human resource management in Korean firms, their executives, and their organizational cultures. This research will add to the existing body of knowledge by providing additional evidence through the findings where discrimination is most likely. Through in-depth interviews with stakeholders in Korean firms, the researchers will (1) identify the causes for gender workforce imbalances within Korea; (2) determine why women are downsized more often than men and how this differs from elsewhere, and (3) investigate the form(s) gender discrimination takes within Korean organizations, and why legal measures have not corrected the social and organizational attitudes that hinder career progress and foster discrimination based on gender stereotyping, incomplete information, and a traditional, paternalistic organizational culture.

The purpose of this paper is to ascertain why this phenomenon continues despite the high educational attainment of Korean women. Interviews of key stakeholder groups, public, private, and non-profit organizations, about employee relations within Korean organizations with a focus on gender division were conducted to illuminate the under-utilization of Korean females within Korean firms. After exploring the literature, this paper outlines the approach and methodology and concludes with a discussion of the findings.


Feminist literature has discussed this subject for over twenty-five years. Neo-liberalism, with its emphasis on the importance of individual "choice" for the work environment, has attempted to explain women's decisions about work (Cha and Thebaud 2009; Crompton and Lyonette 2005; Standing 1999). Women are said to be less likely than men to participate in the labor force because of demographic, social, legal, and cultural trends and norms (Pan 2002; Elder and Johnson 1999). Neoliberalist policies force women to accept lower average wages and average earnings than men in most occupations in most countries because they emphasize "choice" (Walby, Gottfried, Gottschall, and Osawa 2007). Neo-liberalism concludes that outcomes result from individual choices.Korean society's attitude is that women choose to stay at home due to Confucian values, instead of participating in the work force (Joo 2008; Chun 2007).

According to various feminist theories, women are temporary, supplementary, pliant, patient, and cheap labor (or labor made cheap) (Pettman 2003; Beechey and Perkins 1988; Bruegel 1979), and globalization is rapidly increasing the demand for women's labor. The three most important theoriesof gender relations are the male breadwinner, gendered politics, and the gender regime, which will be assessed in the context of the Korean workplace (Walby et al. 2007; Turner and Monk 2007; Ridgeway and Cornell 2006; Lee, Roehl and Choe 2000; England 1992; Crompton and Sanderson 1990). These ideologies state: 1) in the male breadwinner model, Marxist feminists see gender inequality as part of social class inequality and the capitalistic market system of production that creates social class inequality and women's economic dependence on men (Lee et al. 2000); 2) gender politics refers to the historical exclusion of women from public roles, power, and citizenship (Walby 1988; Klein 1984); and 3) organizations are posited to have "gender regimes," e.g., internal structures, processes, and beliefs that place women and men in different tasks and positions in which there is a systematic interrelationship between different dimensions of gender relations (Acker 2006; Pan 2002; Blackburn, Browne, Brooks, and Jarman 2002).

Due its rapid industrialization from the 1960s to the 1990s, Korea now ranks as one of the world's top fifteen economies (International Monetary Fund 2010), resulting in a rapid increase in the number of professional positions within Korean businesses. Nevertheless, Korean females continue to be marginalized in leadership and decision-making contexts, with limited employment opportunities in middle and upper management or executive or boardroom positions (Siegel et al. 2011; World Bank 2007). The female labor force participation rate jumped from 39.3% in the 1970s to 50% in 2008, decreasing slightly to 49.2% in 2011 (KNSO 2011).

Recent research demonstrates greater profitability for firms that employ women in higher level positions in Korea, but their overall employment rate is 10% below that of key advanced nations (Werner, Devillard, and Sancier-Sultan 2010). A noticeable wage gap exists between comparably educated men and women who perform the same jobs (Cho, Kwon, and Ahn 2010; Jones and Tsutsumi 2009). Sex-segregation is more predominant in traditional societies than in advanced nations in educational levels, fields of study, and occupational segregation (Buchman, Kriesei, and Sacchi 2010; Yukongki and Rowley 2006; Yukongdi and Benson 2006; Ahn 2006).

Current research on gender equality in the Korean workplace shows that it continues to be inflexible in its treatment of women (Patterson and Seo 2010; Eun and Yoon 2010; Legal and institutional framework against employment discrimination in force in OECD countries in 2007 2008; Kim, Kim, Lee, and Choi 2007). The gradual changes that have been made are due to legislative changes and the effects of foreign firms entering Korea or Korean firms expanding abroad (2011-2012 Progress of the World's Women 2011; Global Employment Trends for Women Report 2009). Although these changes have initiated a radical shift in the traditional cultural belief of the "male breadwinner" (Cha and Thebaud 2009), the effects of this shift are minimal, and gender discrimination continues compared to other Asian countries. When women are economically dependent on men, their societies will support men having better access to social power, prestige, material resources, and the desire to maintain the status quo (Global Employment Trends for Women Report 2009; World Bank 2007; Baxter and Kane 1995). For indicators such as Gender Empowerment Measure, Gender Development Index, and the Global Gender Gap Rankings, Korea ranks as one of the lowest OECD countries (Cho, Cho, and Song 2010; Park 2010). Korean women's career progress is negatively affected by individual, organizational, and societal factors (Park and Gress 2010; Lee and Rowley 2008). The literature review will consider the Korean government's policies on equal opportunity, Korean human resource management characteristics, and Korean firm/executive characteristics and organizational culture.

Korean government policies on equal opportunity

Korea's female labor force has grown, but its actual female working population has not, because employment is more difficult for women due to the gender division of jobs and failure to employ highly educated women (Joo and Lee 2009; Cho and Kwon 2007). In the past two decades, Korea's government has made legislative changes emphasizing gender equality through such reforms as affirmative action (Cho, Kwon and Ahn 2010; Park 2010). The legal rights of Korean women have improved with implementation of gender mainstreaming strategies, but traditional genderized roles are the norm (Eun and Yoon 2010; Park 2010) due to a slow transition to a dual-earner model retarded by Confucian ideals (Chin, Cho, and Baek 2011; Kim 2007; Moon 2007). These ideals have also resulted in insufficient female representation in the government, which other countries have achieved (Park 2010; Joo 2008). Part of the Korean gender mainstreaming plan is gender-sensitive budgeting, but the level of female workers within the Korean government is inadequate because its society considers hiring female civil servants a low priority (Kim 2007; Kugelman 2006). The focus of the policies is on gender equity, but discrimination in treatment and practices against diverse groups continue to be the norm, despite a constitution and labor laws forbidding discriminatory treatment (Ahn 2006). Women continue leave the labor force to bear and raise children (Childcare Policy in Korea 2008; Brinton and Choi 2006; Park 2005). Korea has a pervasive, gender-biased cultural mindset at all levels of the male-dominated workplace, preventing the leveraging of female talent (Park and Gress 2010; ILO Action Plan for Gender Equality 2008-09 2008). In 2009 (KNSO January 2010), lower female participation rate figures validated the argument that women disproportionately suffered from downsizing during financial crises (Buvinic 2009). Full-time employees, the majority being male, were not laid off because many firms predicted an economic recovery, but they continued to lay off "non-essential" workers, with women being hardest hit. This is further evidence of the "male breadwinner" model, which may create unequal treatment of men and women in dismissal, social security entitlements, and rehiring (Siegal et al. 2011; Lee 2010).

Korean Human Resource Management Characteristics

In Korea, human resource management (HRM) had traditionalist rigidity as it focused on specific cultural features but today, it is moving toward more modern, western-influenced HR practices (Chang and Lee 2006; Rowley, Benson, and Warner 2004). A major influence on the attitudes of business managers are the core cultural values of harmony, unity, and vertical social relationships that have slowed modernization of human resource practices (Lee et al. 2000; Song and Meek...

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