[Outlook]Backsliding on women’s rights

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[Outlook]Backsliding on women’s rights

Let me present some facts. First, of those who passed the second round of the national bar examination last year, 38 percent were women, by far the highest such figure yet. Second, around 19,000 jobs for men disappeared last year, but the number was much bigger for women - 84,000. Third, Korea ranked 68th on the 2008 Gender Empowerment Measure of 100 countries, as assessed by the United Nations Development Program. It was a four-level fall from the previous year.

March 8 was International Women’s Day and it was celebrated with a range of events around the world.

However, such events didn’t seem to draw much attention in Korea. It’s a pity that International Women’s Day passed almost unnoticed, considering the importance of women’s issues.

About half the people you meet on the commute to and from work are women, but the economic crisis is eclipsing the urgent issue of their rights. The downturn is making all other issues appear unimportant and makes people regard gender inequality as a minor problem.

In our society on the whole, the standing of women has steadily improved.

A host of laws have been made or revised; hojuje, a Confucian-influenced family registry system in which men are the heads of households and children have to take their father’s name, was abolished. Nonetheless, looking at the reality, women’s social standing is still very weak.

Two phenomena draw attention in this regard.

The first is polarization among women. Women with specialized careers have been in the spotlight while the majority of ordinary women have been excluded from competition for jobs.

At universities, women among incoming students are very confident, while female seniors who are about to graduate are afraid of an uncertain future. It is extremely difficult for them to get a job at workplaces usually preferred by women such as government bodies, media companies or firms in the cultural field.

The patriarchal culture of Korea also casts a shadow over women. We are not alone; this issue stretches across East Asia. In this culture, a majority of organizations and social institutions are still male-oriented.

In university classrooms, female students learn about women’s liberation. But many decide to have secret plastic surgery in hopes that a better appearance will help them find jobs.

From a long-term perspective, achieving gender equality is as important and urgent as overcoming the economic crisis. This task requires a twofold strategy.

First, we must devise a policy that will enable us to use the workforce of women with specialized skills to the fullest.

It is a waste of manpower for talented women to get married and become full-time homemakers after graduation instead of getting jobs in which they can use their skills to the fullest. We will always struggle in international competition if we only use half the specialized workforce. And of course, it’s wrong in terms of human rights.

Second, the employment policy aimed at removing gender discrimination must be strengthened.

These days, a majority of women workers are on short-term contracts. Many women want to have jobs, whether for financial reasons or for a sense of fulfillment. It is not right for them to be excluded and discriminated against in the labor market just because of their sex.

Therefore, the government must pay more attention to creating more secure jobs for women and improving public services that take care of children and elderly citizens, responsibilities generally regarded as women’s duties.

Some might say this argument is right but not realistic. They might argue that it is difficult to create jobs these days, and amid the economic crisis the heads of households must get first priority in jobs.

But if we ignore women’s issues because of such excuses, the standing of women will never improve. We should not view women from a male perspective, as “other.” Instead, we must approach improving women’s rights and achieving gender equality from the perspective that these people are our daughters and our mothers.

The other day, the official Vatican newspaper ran an article about the washing machine and the emancipation of women to celebrate International Women’s Day. “Put in the powder, close the lid and relax,” the article cutely said, arguing that the gadget made a special contribution to the emancipation of women. The Vatican seemed to approach the issue with a sense of humor.

Offering more and better jobs to women is an important task that cannot be delayed any further.


The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki

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