Slow Progress: South Korea’s Gender Inequality Issue

Slow Progress: South Korea’s Gender Inequality Issue

South Korea’s ongoing struggle with gender inequality has ramifications for its economy and society. The country’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, may end up exacerbating this problem by denying its existence.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

South Korea’s ongoing struggle with gender inequality has ramifications for its economy and society. The country’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, may end up exacerbating this problem by denying its existence.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Gender inequality is an ongoing problem in South Korea, which has the most pronounced pay gap in the developed world.
– President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has repeatedly denied the existence of gender-based discrimination against women in South Korea and even pledged to abolish institutions seeking to combat gender inequality.
– The Yoon administration will likely avoid dealing with this issue, which may result in a worsening of the situation and an underperforming economy in the long run.

THE NEW PRESIDENT

On May 10, 2022, Yoon Suk-yeol will become South Korea’s 13th president. On March 9, one day after International Women’s Day, he was elected by a thin margin of 0.7% with 48.6% of the total vote. Yoon, who came to fame as the public prosecutor who locked up the former president, Park Geun-hye, ran on a conservative ticket of law and order. He also pandered to anti-feminists and young South Korean men who believe that they are being discriminated against with progressive policies that aim to empower women at the expense of men. Because of this, he has been labeled an “anti-feminist” by various domestic and international media outlets alike.

During his election campaign, Yoon repeatedly criticized feminist movements. He also pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and to do away with gender-based quotas for government offices and companies alike. Instead, he vowed to focus on policies of inclusiveness and meritocracy that, he stated, would empower everyone within society and not just women. Yoon’s words and actions have seemingly questioned the existence of gender-based discrimination in South Korea and he has insisted that such social issues have already been overcome. But these are questionable claims, given that South Korea is still a long way off from achieving gender parity.

GENDER INEQUALITY AND SOUTH KOREA

The World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks South Korea 102 out of 156 on its gender equality scale. The country has the highest gender pay gap among OECD countries. It is also last in terms of women serving on the boards of large enterprises – only 8.7% of board members are women. This matters because the South Korean economy is effectively run by a few large conglomerates — the chaebols — including behemoths such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai. Despite over four-fifths of the South Korean workforce being employed in small to medium-sized enterprises (SME), the majority of economic output comes from a handful of companies, whose boards remain almost entirely male-dominated. 

While some of these chaebols have become more wealthy since the beginning of COVID-19, owing to an increased global demand for electronic goods and semiconductors in general, smaller SME-centered industries have struggled. Workers from the hospitality, food service, transportation, education and business support service sectors – the majority of whom are women – have been hit particularly hard. South Korea’s economy also has one of the highest shares of temporary employment among OECD countries, accounting for over a quarter of the total labor force. Almost two-thirds of these part-time workers are women. In fact, 21% of all employed South Korean women work part-time and therefore have been disproportionately affected by pandemic-related job insecurity. Yet, despite these facts, young South Korean women are the most educated among all OECD countries, with 76% of South Korean women between the ages of 25 and 34 having at least one college degree, compared to 64% of South Korean men of the same age group.

In short, South Korean women have a much steeper career path despite being, on average, better educated than their male peers. The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index, which measures women’s role and influence within the workforce of OECD countries, ranks South Korea last. This is in part because Korean women are generally expected to choose between having a career and starting a family. But even this cannot fully explain the massive gender pay gap, as South Korea is also the country with the world’s lowest birth rate, at a meager 0.82 children per woman. At the current trend, South Korea will lose over half of its population within one generation.

President-elect Yoon has blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rates. However, a lack of family support, pressure from employers and stress from South Korea’s notoriously cut-throat education system may all be partially responsible for causing many South Korean women to reconsider having children or even reject marriage altogether. The recent trend of increasing suicide rates among young South Korean women also points to the sad truth of mounting societal pressures.

Nonetheless, many South Korean men are oblivious to the reality of their female peers, as can be seen in the frequent public backlash against feminism and the wide support for Yoon’s anti-feminist stance. Opinion polls have shown that a majority of young men voted for Yoon, while women were more likely to vote for his more liberal opponent, Lee Jae-myung. This is unsurprising, given that many who openly identify as feminists often still fear for their own safety. Yoon’s active denial of this reality gives credence to anti-feminist voices who want to reverse progressive policies that aim at empowering women.

The outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, has repeatedly acknowledged the issue of gender inequality in South Korean society and has even called himself a “feminist president.” Reducing the gender wage gap and empowering the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to help drive change were part of his election promises. His cabinet was the most diverse in South Korean history and many had hoped he would introduce significant legislation to combat South Korea’s gender disparity. However, the pandemic transferred much political will from the issue of women’s rights to chaebol-led economic recovery

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Upon taking office, President Yoon’s focus will likely be on economic growth, national security, and reducing sky-high property prices. Beyond that, he can be expected to either follow through with his promise to abolish the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family, or at least rename and restructure it, with the similar outcome of diminishing the ministry’s powers.

South Korea has made real progress in terms of gender equality in previous years, including climbing 16 ranks on the WEF’s gender equality index in just the past five years. Current momentum may carry the country forward a few more places, but in the long run, Yoon’s policies may cause South Korea to backslide. 

Yoon will likely not support improving women’s rights or reducing the gender wage gap. At best, he will leave these issues untouched, as he is a proponent of free-market capitalism and has also vowed to do away with other regulations introduced by the Moon administration. Even if Yoon does not take an active stance against reducing the wage gap, however, this non-interventionism may itself have negative consequences, as chaebols will no longer feel pressed to increase the share of female executives and board members.

Yoon’s focus on economic growth may prove popular, as the economy will continue to grow strongly for some time. However, strong economic growth in the short-term may obfuscate the economy’s underlying issue of gender disparity, which suppresses actual economic potential. The disadvantage South Korean women experience in society has real economic implications that will become increasingly visible once economic growth slows down. 

The country has massive economic potential, as its population is highly skilled. South Korea’s wide gender pay gap and thick glass ceiling mean that the existing economic potential is not realized. This is also reflected in South Korea having one of the OECD’s lowest rates of labor productivity, which is currently offset by long working hours. The intense focus on tertiary education will ensure a continuous flow of well-educated workers, but an increasing number of these are likely to leave the country in the coming years, as under-appreciated women and overworked men alike choose to vote with their feet, further worsening the upcoming demographic shift.

Virtually all developed nations have to prepare for a demographic shift, but perhaps none will be as dramatic as South Korea’s. Within a century, South Korea’s population may shrink by three-quarters. Regardless of continuous per capita growth, as a whole, the economy will eventually begin a rapid contraction. The population is already decreasing at around 0.2% annually — a rate that will increase in the years to come. South Korea, one of the world’s most ethnically homogenous societies on earth, is also lacking an immigration strategy to make up for this decline. Given that Yoon has not indicated his intention in addressing this issue, this trend is unlikely to reverse during his term. 

Quick and wide-ranging action by the government would be required to counteract the sources of South Korea’s rapid population decline, including narrowing the gender pay gap, reducing discrimination against women in the workplace, and making it more affordable to raise children. In absence of political will to even acknowledge these societal issues, the situation will likely not improve much, if at all, during Yoon’s term. Lack of progress may eventually translate into political pressure for the government, or for a pro-feminist president to be elected in the future, who may bring a renewed focus on reducing gender disparity. For now, it will be slow progress at best.