Across the globe, gender inequality and sexism is a topical and problematic reality. Sexual harassment is prevalent in many cultures and not a single country is without a pay gap. From social media movements #yesallwomen, to the fight against rape culture in the USA, it seems evident that globally, the struggle for gender equality is nowhere near finished.
Yet to young South Korean women, the plight of Western women seems trivial. When discussing sexism and gender inequality with students at Ewha Women’s University, many were adamant that sexism in South Korea is worse than other developed states, that the struggles women face here are far more severe and deeply embedded into society, leaving women at a permanent disadvantage to men.
Statistically, South Korea has some of the highest levels of gender inequality in the ‘developed’ world. The 2014 Global Gender Gap Report ranked South Korea at 117th for gender equality, while OECD gender wage gap reports placed it at the bottom, with a wage gap of 36.6%. Despite having a female president, sexism is prevalent in South Korea. Just as Obama’s presidency has had little impact on racial problems in the USA, South Korea’s change in leadership has not created a significant step forward against gender inequality.
Many scholars and commentators on Korean society argue that gender inequality is deeply embedded into South Korean culture. In 2013, during a diplomatic visit to the USA, presidential spokesman Yoon Chang-jung was caught in a media storm after sexually harassing a Korean embassy employee. However, he claimed the occurrence was a ‘cultural misunderstanding’, and no direct mentions to sexual harassment were made.
Hierarchical and patriarchal values in Korean society go hand in hand in reinforcing gender norms that, resultantly, lead to gender inequality. Historically, the role of women has been separate and below that of men: under Joseon, women were separated from men to practice ‘feminine hobbies’ such as embroidery, while men learned to write and actively partake in society. Gender norms have placed men as the ‘breadwinner’ and the head of the house giving males hierarchical dominance over women, while females are to raise the family and look after the house.
Gender norms give males hierarchical dominance over women
The ramifications that gender norms have had on modern Korean society are evident in the workplace, not only is the pay gap higher than other developed countries, but women are treated as lesser employees. 8% of CEO’s are female in a country dominated by large corporations, and furthermore, women are actively encouraged to hide the familial goals, as this could cost them their job.
In 2014, the labour ministry advised women interviewing for jobs to hide any plans of marriage or having children, and to say they are okay with sexual jokes in the workplace. It is a common known fact the women have been fired, or encouraged to leave their jobs, once pregnant, in a phenomenon called the ‘M gap’. If women return to the workforce after raising children, they are paid less, not only than their male counterparts, but than their previous salaries. Gender roles penalize women who work, and make it incredibly difficult for women to break the glass ceiling in South Korea.
The hierarchical nature of Korean society further re-enforces, and often excuses, sexual abuse. Formality and respect for one’s superior are values rooted into family, business and day to day life in South Korea. Henceforth, male superiors, whom constitute for the majority of the workforce, can abuse women whom in turn are expected to stay silent. Statistics on sexual harassment are high, but inaccurate; governmental reports claim that only 10% of assault cases are reported, with many women staying quiet in fear of stigmas against speaking out. This has deep, and sometimes deadly, repercussions for women. In 2009, actress Jang Ja-yeon committed suicide, naming male entertainment executives who sexually assaulted her and forced her to stay quiet, to the point where she felt she would be more freed by death than by speaking up.
The problem of gender inequality in South Korea is not one necessarily of misogyny, but of re-enforced gender norms that leave women worse off than men. For example, despite legislation to prevent women from being fired due to pregnancy, systematically women are encouraged to look after children; maternity leave is 90 days, while paternity leave is 5. Popular culture primarily enforces stereotypes of femininity and masculinity, which ties closely to objectification. Neo-Confucian values that are tied closely to Korean society reinforce familial matriarchal and patriarchal roles, sticking men and women into boxes that the government is not helping them break out of.
Neo-confucian values reinforce matriarchal and patriarchal roles
This is not to say that there are no movements forward against gendered societal norms and inequalities. Many young people recognize that sexism is a problem in South Korea, and the younger generation are showing examples of breaking away from gender norms. Korean popular culture is showing a shift away from gendered stereotypes. Television dramas, which are known for reinforcing traditional and sexist tropes, are showcasing stronger female leads and edging away from stereotypes. Laws are in place to prevent women from being fired due to pregnancy, and to help revoke the pay gap. Furthermore, the OECD Gender Gap index has reported that South Korean women have ‘impressively high levels of education and health equality’. However, despite movements forward, it is naive to say South Korea is anywhere near ‘equal’ regarding gender; the OECD further reported that women have ‘only moderate economic equality, and poor political equality’.
Sexism is not a phenomenon restricted to one country, but one experienced globally. However, the notion that sexism occurs because ‘boys will be boys’ is redundant: sexism is rooted into societal norms which are historically constructed and embedded into cultures. South Korean sexism differs greatly from western culture; it is not driven by misogyny, but embedded in cultural values that have historically continued and solidified themselves into everyday life.