중앙데일리

Much to celebrate, yet even more to be achieved

Few women in upper tier of Korean science  PLAY AUDIO

Apr 01,2003
April is the month of science, a time when Korea celebrates a field that has continually provided the nation shoots and blossoms of vital knowledge. During the next four weeks science fairs and promotional events will plant seeds of awe that might one day lead to a timely invention or a beautiful discovery. According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, 250 public and private agencies, including the Science Ministry itself, the Ministry of Defense, Korea Forest Service and local governments, including those of Busan, Daegu, Gwangju and Incheon, will hold 600 events. Korean scientists over the last 20 years have made inroads into nearly 100 discrete areas, some as obvious as chemistry and physics, and others as obscure as palasontology and malacology. Many of the nation's researchers and technologists have advanced degrees from the world's leading institutions, and they flock abroad to deliver papers at international meetings. According to a study by Yonsei University, Koreans ranked sixth in 1999 in the number of patents registered that year in the United States (3529). In 1980, Koreans registered two patents in the United States Patent and Trademark Office. But the accomplishments have one glaring gap: As with most other areas of national importance, Korean women have had few opportunities in and little influence on science and technology. In 2002, women made up 28 percent of the nation’s college graduates with degrees in science or engineering. Women accounted for 18 percent of recipients of a master's degree and 11 percent of those with a Ph. D. But among the 180,000 science or engineering researchers in Korea, only 19,000, or 11 percent, were women. And most of them were concentrated in the lower research ranks. At the 21 government science and technology research institutes nationwide, women accounted for only 2.8 percent of department chiefs, and for private research institutes, only 0.7 percent of the top jobs were filled by women. The JoongAng Daily recently asked three prominent women scientists to gather together to discuss the challenges women face in science and engineering, their accomplishments and goals. The participants were Yoo Hyang-sook, director of the Center for Functional Analysis of Human Genome, and the spearhead of bioengineering technology in Korea; Choe Soon-ja, a nanotechnology specialist and professor of chemical science and biological engineering at Inha University; and Lee Kong-joo, a professor at Ewha Woman’s University who specializes in proteomics. The following are excerpts from the discussion. JAD: What do you believe is the largest obstacle to women in science and engineering? Lee: Most of all, the number of women is too small. The situation is completely different between a group where one or two are women and a group where at least 30 percent are women. Choe: I think 30 percent is a critical mass. The percentage of women in a group really affects decision making as to how the organization is run. For example, the situation is very different in a group where women comprise at least one third of the members, and their marriages and motherhood are tolerated as opposed to a group that contains one or two women and these things are not tolerated. Lee: I have often witnessed a situation where a young woman who studied engineering does an excellent job at a private company, but soon is frustrated after she marries and has a child over whether she can survive the competition. In other words, women in their early 30s, the critical period of their careers, must be able to overcome such obstacles in theory, but the social structure does not allow that to happen easily. JAD: So in conclusion, women in science and technology are experiencing the same dilemmas women have to deal with in other areas of society. Three in chorus: Yes, it seems so. Yet research requires, in a sense, a 24 hour attention span, so child rearing and homemaking are even larger burdens. JAD: Any personal experience with social obstacles or discrimination? Lee: After I got my Ph.D. and completed a post-doc program in the United States, my professor persuaded me to stay in America, but my husband wanted to go back to Korea, thus, in 1988, I followed him without thinking much. But I was rejected by universities in Korea because they did not hire women. I should have given more thought to my career, but I did not, maybe because I already had two children, and at that time, could not even imagine living separately from my family. Later, when I landed a job at a research institute, I devoted myself to work. Yoo: I was a lucky case. I returned to Korea in 1987 after studying in the United States. At that time, bioengineering was a booming discipline, and there was room for women to enter. Bioengineering was a special case. It was extremely difficult for women to get a job at research institutes or universities in other fields at that time. This will be the reiteration of the number theory, but I think compared with other science fields, the reason was partly because women had a larger presence in bioengineering. JAD: But is society solely responsible? How about the complaints from men that work is a difficult thing and they themselves would quit their jobs if they could, but they have to support their families? And they criticize women, who, they say, are in many cases free of such burdens, and, thus, are compelled to quit at the slightest challenge and become homemakers. Lee: I know what you are saying. Why can't young women, as individuals, be more independent and aggressive? Why do they give up? But I believe that is not really because of their personality, but because they were raised that way. Yoo: The outside pressure is enormous. That a women should tend the family is still the common belief held by women themselves as well as the people surrounding them. No matter how successful a woman may be, if she fails to manage her family well, the prevalent view is that she is a failure. For women, social activities and careers are still considered secondary. Society has forced this thought into women’s heads. So a woman is trained to think that her first priority is to tend the family. Lee: For example, parents react to sons and daughters differently. One hundred percent of parents of sons show happiness and cheer if they spend long hours working and studying. But for girls, there are two types of parents: those who support them and those who criticize them for, say, coming home late because of study, which is considered not ladylike. Choe: I am still surprised that the views parents hold toward their children differ starkly according to whether they are sons or daughters. They still think, “How can a woman do such difficult and physically demanding things?” In Korea, what parents think still have a significant influence on what their children aspire to. JAD: Still? Lee, Choe: Still? It is getting even more serious! Yoo: There cannot be a bigger differences between children who were told that they can do anything and they are free to seek and fulfill their dreams and those girls raised hearing that they are O.K. if they become ladies and have a happy home. I was raised in the first case. My mother wanted to study and have a career, but her father banned her from pursuing her dream because he believed women did not need to be educated. So the unfulfilled dream of my mother made her encourage me to do whatever I wanted to do. I think I owe a large part of what I achieved to being encouraged in that way when I was still a child and my thoughts were being shaped. But that does not mean that a woman must be despised for wanting be a homemaker. But if her dream is to have a career, her environment must encourage it. Lee: I believe all women must work to make society healthy. Yoo : Yes! Choe: I completely agree with you. Lee: There are too many drawbacks in society caused by women not working. What do parents receive in return for sacrificing their lives for their children? In the end, nothing. Yoo: I believe that if I do the work that makes me happy, it makes my children happy. But parents sacrificing themselves for the betterment of their children burdens the children. Choe: I originally was interested in philosophy, but I chose this field because I wanted to support myself, not depend on my husband or anybody else. In retrospect, I think I made a great choice. In my case, I did not have such “open-minded” parents, but was influenced by books. Yoo: I think the role of women, especially that of mothers, is critical. Enlightenment of women is imperative. If women change their thinking, they will raise their children also to be that way, so there will be no problems. Choe: Our society, in which it is still difficult to make a living, regards women as producing machines and cannot relieve them from giving birth to a child. But as society develops, I think we will become more acceptable to other ideas. JAD: What are your positions on the government policies for gender equality, such as setting a quota for hiring women? Yoo: It is true that women have been deprived of opportunity, and I support a system to correct things in that sense. But I do not want that system to work as reverse discrimination. It is not desirable to hire a necessary number of women, even though they are not qualified, to meet a quota. I object to that. Not just because they are women, but for the women who were good enough -- or better -- to make the grade without special treatment. Lee: But I think you do not have to worry about it. Women have had too few opportunities and I believe a 10 percent or 20 percent quota would be easily filled. Once they are given opportunity to be inside the network, they will adapt to it. JAD: Taking a look at your recent achievements, what is the current issue in your fields and your plans for the year. Choe: Nanotechnology has become a buzzword, but to me the concept seems fleeting. Nano means particles smaller than 100 nanometers. In a broader sense, nanotechnology is making everything now micron size nano size. I study how to produce particles that are the same in size and shape and of uniform composition. Currently, micron particles are widely used in industry. If we make them nano size, people say, the application of technology would broaden. But I see only a few fields that would benefit from this, such as display devices and sensors that go into human bodies. JAD: How competitive is Korea in this field? Choe: When I go to review committees, the attendees agree that even though everyone talks about nanotechnology, it is still an obscure concept. Yoo: The mapping of the human genome is almost finished. But the functions of 95 percent of the genes are unknown. That is our future task. Every human has 99.9 percent identical genetic makeup. The other 0.1 percent is what makes us different. With the completion of the map, we can find how the 0.1 percent makes Koreans different from other peoples. We have to have our own data to show individual variation of Koreans. Otherwise, we will be forced to rely on foreign data. I manage 10 billion won ($8 million) a year, yet is not a large amount for the national genome project. In principle, we should map from square one the genetic makeup of Koreans like the United States and other countries are doing. But we do not have enough money to study all the genes. What we will do is get a sample and make partial comparisons. As the first step, we are studying the genes considered to be related to gastric and liver cancers, which afflict Koreans at a greater rate than any other people. With our smaller budget we will concentrate on genes that are related to the diseases Koreans are more prone to. We have found the genes speculated to be linked to gastric and liver cancers. This year, we will identify the exact functions of those genes. It will probably take about three years to complete. Lee: Our three fields are related to the medical sciences. It used to be difficult to analyze and study proteins. Now, with the availability of genetic information, we can shorten the time necessary for protein studies. How certain proteins are related to causing diseases is what I am working on. JAD: Thank you. by Kim Hyo-jin


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