[Viewpoint]Women can lead‘I think that women should get a fairer deal at work,” said one student during our class discussion on women in leadership positions in South Korea. “Without women in top positions, how will society value them highly as leaders?” said another.
We had been discussing the large pool of talented and able women who have been underutilized, with few exceptions, in business and financial institutions, the government, law and the IT field.
One student asked how long it would take before women fill the ranks of upper management and other leadership posts in the same numbers as men.
“Discrimination and fewer opportunities for women are deeply ingrained in Korean society,” I told her. “If women wait to be promoted against favored men, then they will have to wait forever,” another student interjected. “So, women have to push to get what they want. They are scoring higher than men on the civil service exam and the exam for diplomats. Clearly, there are many able women available.”
“What do you think of creating top positions for women leaders?” I asked. “For example, the former prime minister, Han Myeong-sook, was in that position because she is a woman. They gain these jobs through affirmative action. That is, a portion of top positions are reserved for women to improve their rights and status.”
“There’s nothing wrong with affirmative action if it gives chances to women,” said a student sitting in the back. “What’s wrong with females getting access to male leadership jobs through affirmative action? They’ve been excluded too long.”
“I don’t like it because people don’t take them seriously as leaders,” said another student. “People criticize them and the media do, too.”
“Don’t be discouraged by that. The media focus on high achievers because they are so rare. Women are still succeeding in their jobs even with the negative press and comments,” I told her.
“Professor Oak, do you think women are different leaders from men?” asked the boldest student in my class.
“I think they communicate differently, but I don’t think there are a lot of differences. There’s a job to do and everyone wants to get it done efficiently and well. But women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves as leaders,” I said.
“Yeah, they have always been in supportive roles and they apologize too much,” said the same student.
“Professor Oak, can Korea globalize without women in leadership positions?”
“We need everyone’s skills and leadership styles to compete in the world and to help Korea meet its global economic goals,” I said. “So chances are huge for women now because they can be chosen as leaders because they are women.”
Indeed, there are two seismic shifts taking place in South Korea that are ushering in a transformation of women’s roles as leaders.
The first shift is to push women to higher positions through affirmative action. To address the lack of leadership opportunities for women, jobs are being allocated for women. This is not a negative development.
How else can these traditional barriers be lifted? How else would we stamp out gender bias and stereotyping?
As some of my students said, this is a good thing for women, even if their leadership skills are being questioned; they still need a boost up the ladder from Korean society.
But many people believe that women are not able or astute enough for top leadership. These people might say, “For a woman, she is doing well.” This was often said about Prime Minister Han even though she was performing well by any standard. The same thing was said about presidential candidate Park Geun-hye. Even though her leadership skills are well established, she is underrated just because she is the daughter of a former president.
In contrast, this is not the case with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. People don’t expect less from her. They don’t expect to measure her performance on a different scale. She is judged like anyone because she is considered a leader in her own right. She is not stigmatized by something like the Korean view of female leadership.
The second shift is in the governing and corporate worlds. These organizations like to present a good global appearance, and they want to look attractive by hiring women leaders. So, leadership positions are opening up for women just because they are women.
However, the controversy remains about women’s leadership style. Many people see it as flawed ― women are not strong enough, they lack assertiveness, or they defer too much. They label it as “women’s leadership” by which some people mean it’s not as good as men’s leadership.
This is my message to women: Don’t be satisfied with affirmative action or being the pretty flower in the corporate boardroom.
Grab the reins and set the standard. Ignore negative press and belittling comments and challenge conventional assumptions about women’s leadership. Work hard to change attitudes. Change the perception of women in authority by training yourselves and building relationships, networks, contacts and mentoring systems with other women.
Create an environment that encourages women to succeed. Do it for yourselves and for future women leaders in the world, such as your daughters and my students.
*The writer is a professor at Ewha Womans University.
by Susan Oak