The men behind women's rightsA third of the staff at the "Ministry of Women" is male. That makes them an anomaly in the Ministry of Gender Equality, the department's official name, and perhaps in Korean society, where until recently men have been unconcerned with the equality between genders.
Since the foundation of Yeoseongbu, literally "the Ministry of Women," 19 months ago, the National Assembly has enacted a ministry-backed bill ensuring paid child-care holidays for working mothers. On Thursday, the ministry launches a job fair in Seoul for female students.
The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently met with three of the agency's top male officials.
Kim Tae-seok, 45, the director general of the Women's Rights Bureau, supervises programs that protect the victims of sexual crimes and domestic abuse. He also oversees educational programs concerning sexual and domestic violence.
Choi Chang-haeng, 40, is an officer with the Women's Resources Development Office. He heads the 51 Womens' Resources Centers, which train and find jobs for housewives and victims of sexual assaults.
Lee Nam-hoon, 35, the deputy director of the Policy Coordination Division, helps integrate policies for women with the central and local governments.
While most Korean government officials are men, women are the majority in this office. Do you have any difficulties as a "minority" here?
Lee: Before I came here, I worked at the Korea National Railroad, where female officials were rare. So the differences between the cultures of my current and former offices confuse me a bit. Here, the working system is very flexible and each employee's personal situation is respected more than the group's. These characteristics have good and bad points. Anyway, I like that I'm not forced to attend office parties and not forced to drink at the parties.
Kim: Sometimes, our staff goes to the movies instead of having drinking parties. Changing this aspect of our culture is part of our ministry's campaign.
What do people think about your working at the "Ministry of Women"?
Kim: Nearly 10 years ago, I was in charge of women's policies at the agency that predated the Ministry of Gender Equality. A decade ago, when I put women's issues on the agenda at cabinet meetings, other officials thought it was funny. Now, officials outside our ministry show great interest in these issues.
Incidentally, Korean men do not take women's issues seriously if you tell them they are about problems facing their wives. But if you tell them they're about the problems facing their daughters, they take them very seriously.
You deal with many issues here. What is most shocking to you?
Choi: The percentage of female college graduates who are actually employed is very low. I regret that the percentage of working college-educated Korean women is the lowest among the 29 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
A primary reason is the lack of child care programs. Another is the failure of proper job guidance for female students. The educational and social systems do not encourage women to think about future employment. Female students often fail to choose the proper majors for their future jobs.
Have your attitudes in your home changed since you began working on women's issues?
Kim: I've been married for 17 years. I had already been good to my wife before I began working for women's issues 10 years ago. I don't do much housework because my wife is a homemaker. Instead, I encourage both my son and daughter to share duties with my wife in the kitchen; many Koreans are still reluctant to let their sons do work in the kitchen. I'm trying to raise my son and daughter without sexual prejudice. My son, rather than my daughter, enjoys cooking.
Choi: My wife has a job, so we divide the housework between us. Before I began working at the Ministry of Women, I would get angry when my wife came home late. I had the distorted view that a mother should return home early -- even if she has a job. Now I tolerate it when she returns late.
What do your male friends say? Have you had any heated disputes with them because of conflicting views on women's issues?
Kim: My male friends joke that I cause public harm, but I have never had any serious problems with them over issues of gender equality.
Lee: Sometimes I talk with my friends about the reasons why women are still the minority in offices. A few chauvinists insist that it is because women are inferior, but most friends say it is the fault of the system and the social environment.
Choi: Women are at a disadvantage because they are not familiar with the male-dominated office culture.
Lee: I have heard that if women exceed 30 percent of a company's office workers, then the culture changes from being male centered. I think most Korean offices are now at this crucial moment.
What do you think, as men, about some women being overly sensitive about women's issues?
Choi: It is not the women's fault. Though women account for half the population, they are still a minority because their power represents far less than half the total power. Sensitivity over women's issues comes from being treated as a minority.
Ministry's 5-step program to combat chauvinism
The Ministry of Gender Equality is conducting a five-pronged campaign to lessen male dominance, a part of Korean society since the rise of Confucianism in the Joseon Dynasty.
It has targeted five areas in need of reform -- housework, child care, public education, traditional holidays and office parties ?and is introducing guidelines to spur changes.
With the arrival of Chuseok, Korea's harvest celebration, the ministry is campaigning to change traditional roles.
Customs call for men to lead ancestral worship services -- the focus of Chuseok -- and for women to make the food for the service, set the table for the men and do all household chores during the holiday.
The ministry is promoting the concept that both men and women should lead the worship service, together prepare the holiday meals and jointly share the chores.
The agency is also recommending that both husbands and wives recognize the value of housework and share household duties. It further notes that homemakers should consider themselves as having an occupation -- and a valuable one at that -- and not consider themselves to be unemployed.
The ministry is encouraging fathers to play with their children and participate in school activities that benefit their offspring. It is stressing that parents should take equal responsibility for child care and education.
This represents a radical change in the way children are raised since, in traditional Korean culture, mothers are responsible for their offspring's upbringing and are blamed for their children's problems.
The ministry is also promoting the idea that office workers should not force one another to drink or to drink excessively as part of the traditional office party culture.
by Moon So-young