Cracks in the glass ceiling

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Cracks in the glass ceiling

With the arrival of the New Year, local financial institutions are betting on their female employees to demonstrate their capacity in pulling up businesses that have been struggling from low interest rates and anemic economic growth.

The spotlight shone on women in financial circles last week when Kwon Seon-joo, formerly vice president of the Industrial Bank of Korea, was promoted to the top position by the government, which holds a majority stake in the institution.

The 57-year-old, who started as a bank teller 36 years ago, is the first woman to head a Korean financial institution, succeeding former President Cho Jun-hee.

Last month’s nomination of Kwon by the Financial Services Commission came as a surprise because she wasn’t even on the list of nominees drawn up by the financial regulator at first.

“Kwon wasn’t among the nominees the FSC picked,” said a senior government official. “The nomination can be seen as something that the president [Park Geun-hye] came up with herself.”

The FSC said in a statement that Kwon was recommended because “she was well-qualified for the position and is able to improve the bank’s soundness through risk management and also support boosting the real economy by [promoting] creative finance.”

Industry insiders note that female financiers have a reputation for subtlety and delicacy, especially when dealing with financial consumers and promoting sales operations. But the local financial industry has long been dominated by men due to the glass ceiling that affects most of Korean society.

“When Korean women reach their 30s, they usually tend to walk away from the labor market because of marriage, childbirth, and child care,” said Lim Jin, a research fellow at the Korea Institute of Finance. “When they try to find jobs after they’re done with their child-rearing role, it’s a big challenge.”

In 2012, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, only 53.5 percent of Korean women were employed, which is below the OECD average of 57 percent. Norway tops the list with 73.8 percent, followed by Canada with 69.2 percent. Korea ranks 10th among advanced nations.

With its first female president, however, Korea is expected to see more women reach higher positions. In July, when President Park met with a group of female executives in the financial sector, she said that she hopes more women with expertise and professionalism contribute to the development of the country’s financial industry. Her comments sparked hopes that Korea would have its first female bank president and more executives who are women. That is what’s happening now.

“The finance industry is one that is very suitable for women,” Kwon said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. “Half of the bank’s employees are, in fact, women.”

According to a 2012 report by the Financial Services Commission, 43.3 percent of the total financial workforce are women - with most of them in the credit and banking businesses. However, a majority of women were in their 20s and 30s, meaning that they join a financial institution such as a bank, insurance company or asset management company, work for a while, and then quit.

FSC data showed that among women in the financial field, 35.2 percent were in their 20s, while 47.7 percent were in their 30s, which adds up to 82.9 percent. However, only 15.4 percent of women were in their 40s and 1.7 percent were in their 50s or older.

It was the opposite for men - 42 percent of the gender’s workforce were in their 40s, while 14.6 percent were in their 50s or older, illustrating that men climb higher on the promotion ladder than women.

“A female workforce is expanding in various sectors [including finance], which I would say is somewhat the spirit of the times,” Kwon said.

An industry official echoed that view.

“Women with high educational background who joined financial institutions decades ago and have survived are being recognized for their hard and consistent work,” the official said. “And under Park’s presidency, there’s an expectation that more women will be recognized for their work and contributions and will be placed in higher positions.”

As for Kwon, she joined IBK in 1978, starting out as a teller at the company’s Dongdaemun branch in central Seoul. She became the institution’s first female vice president in 2011.

“I will fight openly against various challenges,” she said in her inauguration speech last week. “I feel a heavy responsibility to be in the position of Korea’s first female bank president. I will stand against big changes with patience and determination like an apricot flower that survives the snowy winter.”

Kwon isn’t the only woman fighting challenges in the financial sector.

In July, Bank of Korea promoted Suh Young-kyung, 51, as the first female deputy governor in its 63-year history. She said in a media interview that when she joined the conservative central bank in 1988 it was “entirely dominated by men.”

BOK became even bolder in its recent year-end promotions: Of 109 BOK officers promoted last week, 20 were women.

Along with BOK, Export-Import Bank of Korea (Korea Eximbank) promoted many women in its year-end promotions Tuesday. Of the 26 employees at management level that were promoted, 14, or 54 percent, were women.

“The responsibility the female workforce holds in all social sectors will become bigger and bigger,” said Kim Yong-hwan, president of Korea Eximbank. “We will also establish a base system where both men and women are able to compete fairly.”

Change is also happening at commercial banks. Hana Financial Group, in a recent executive reshuffle, promoted four women at both Hana Bank and Korea Exchange Bank.

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