Women Show Net Is Not Just for GuysKorea has always performed dismally as far as gender equality is concerned. A look at international statistics shows that despite its impressive economic growth, Korea has a long way to go to make improvements in this area. In a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of its 30 member states, for example, Korea ranked among the lowest in the employment rate of women with higher education. An International Labor Organization survey also put Korea at the bottom of 24 major countries when it came to women's advancement into high-level government positions.
So the news last week that Korean women have achieved gender equality in cyberspace is a pleasant surprise. The breakdown of Internet usage according to gender in the month of March shows 52.9 percent were male and 47.1 percent female, which makes the gender gap between Internet users in Korea the lowest in Asia, according to NetValue Korea, a global Internet survey company.
Worldwide, Korea's gender gap was second lowest, following the United States with 52.7 percent male users and 47.3 percent female users during the same period. The number of female Internet users in Korea has been steadily increasing since the end of last year when women accounted for 45.2 percent of all users. A Neilson Netratings survey of Internet usage in 21 countries released at the end of last month shows Korean Internet users to be 53.8 percent male and 46.2 percent female.
This impressive showing, at least in terms of numbers, can be attributed to the number of households connected to the Internet since the majority of Internet users access the network from home. As of March, some 39.9 percent of Korean households were connected to the Internet, either by high-speed broadband or the slower telephone modem. The cut-throat price war among Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, has made high-speed Internet access very affordable. Meanwhile, the availability of low-end multimedia PCs driven by a government-backed program has resulted in affordable computers for home use.
Once on the Web, the women are interested mostly in watching videos or listening to music: the NetValue survey shows that 82.7 percent of female users used audio-video services. Korean women control the purse-strings and enjoy shopping even in cyberspace. Secured transactions, indicating online shopping and banking, were also a favorite with 58.5 percent of logged-on women making such transactions.
For housewives whose activities are limited to the home and a small circle of acquaintances, the Internet can be a liberator, literally bringing the world into their home. This is even more the case for moms with babies who proclaim the Internet as a lifesaver.
"It makes me feel connected to the rest of the world," said Hahm Mi-kyung, 36, the mother of a four-month-old boy. Ms. Hahm who led an active social life before the birth of her second son turned to her computer to bring herself out of isolation. She chats with her old classmates and exchanges e-mails and photos with friends abroad. By ordering disposable diapers and formulas online, she is able to make significant savings. Another bonus - "No time wasted in the traffic and the checkout counter!" Ms. Hahm exclaimed. What does she do with the extra time? "At nights, I catch up with TV dramas and news that I missed on the Internet," said Ms. Hahm.
Ms. Hahm represents the growing trend of Netizen housewives. This trend was given a boost last year by a government initiative to provide homemakers with Internet skills. Dismayed by low Internet usage by this group, which constitutes approximately 1.9 percent of all users, the Ministry of Information and Communication in March last year began a program to make Internet training affordable for women who stay at home. The Ministry selected 1,000 private training centers to offer 20 hours of Internet training at the low cost of 30,000 won to homemakers. A typical Internet class costs 100,000 won a month.
"The housewives' classes attracted women who were kept from taking others because they were intimidated by having to keep up with mostly young, male classmates," said Park Min-ha, a Ministry official in charge of the program. Another survey of Internet users conducted a few months after the initiative showed housewives accounting for 19-20 percent of all Internet users, which according to Mr. Park, is a remarkable change.
The housewives responded so enthusiastically that by the end of last year, the Ministry had already surpassed its goal of training one million housewives. The program, originally scheduled to end in July, may be extended to include more people. "The fee was brought down to 10,000 won this year to encourage even the housewives in low income groups to get Internet training," said Mr. Park.
Although equality has been achieved in numbers, numbers are a misleading indication of parity. "Housewives who attended the classes do meet the national minimum requirement when it comes to computer literacy. There is nothing much these women can do other than read the papers on the Net or exchange e-mails," said Mr. Park.
by Kim Hoo-ran