For women, inroads in the Korean workplace

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For women, inroads in the Korean workplace


Korean working mothers attend an event marking International Women’s Day in Ilsan, Goyang. Korea still lags far behind other advanced countries in using women in the workplaces. [JoongAng Ilbo]

A 33-year-old surnamed Park, who is a working mother with a 3-year-old daughter, considers herself lucky. After giving birth in 2011, she was able to go on maternity leave for a year without feeling “sorry” for her co-workers and the company.

“I was fortunate,” said Park, who works at a foreign insurance company. “One of the big reasons I am still here working is because I was able to go on a full year child care leave.”

Park said her previous employer didn’t offer leave.

“The first company I worked for after graduation offered an environment in which it was difficult for working mothers to continue their careers,” she said. “They were allowed to use only 90 days of maternity leave, and most of them quit or got burned out working and looking after their children at the same time.”

Although her friends envied her for working in a company that guarantees leave, Park noted that she had to change departments after returning.

“When I was gone for leave, a temporary worker was hired,” Park said. “She became a full-time employee in charge of my job.”

Korea celebrated International Women’s Day on Saturday under its first woman president. The special day was established by the United Nations in 1975.

Under President Park Geun-hye there have been changes in gender policies and also the overall environment and mood. The spotlight was on the financial sectors late last year when the government, which holds a majority stake in the Industrial Bank of Korea, promoted a female vice president to president. Kwon Seon-joo was the first woman to head a Korean financial institution. The government’s pick surprised many, and Kwon was considered a “not-so-common” woman.


“It’s often the case that, when Korean women reach their 30s, they usually quit their jobs because of marriage, childbirth and child care,” said Lim Jin, a research fellow at the Korea Institute of Finance. “After they’re done raising their children, it’s difficult for them to join the labor market again.”

According to Statistics Korea, the rate of working women by age group was highest for those aged 25 and 29 in 2012. For that age group, 71.6 percent had jobs. The percentage, however, dropped to 56.4 for women aged 30 to 34.

In 2012, 49.9 percent of the female population was working, up only a fifth of a percentage point from 2011. The rate hasn’t changed much from 2002, when 49.8 percent of women had jobs.

Ministries last month rolled out various measures to help working mothers maintain their careers and for homemakers to get back on the job. The measures are in line with the president’s efforts to achieve a 70 percent overall employment rate before her term ends in four years.

The measures included paternity leave for fathers, allowing women to reduce the work week to as little as 15 hours for up to two years, and allocating 4.6 trillion won ($4.3 billion) for projects related to women in the workplace this year.

Despite government efforts, however, critics note that introducing measures is not enough and that active participation by the private sector is needed.

“Although there are many polices being rolled out to support women in the labor market, they are not being fully practiced,” said Representative Kim Jin-pyo of the main opposition Democratic Party.

A survey conducted by Job Korea last week showed that 81 of 100 working mothers feel burdened by raising children and have thought of quitting.

“Mere policies aren’t enough,” said a 35-year-old mother of two. “Companies should be willing to change the working environment for female workers, but it seems it’s too much to ask for now. The current culture and environment has been rooted for such a long time.”

Conglomerates, however, note that changes are happening gradually, with companies creating a friendlier environment for working mothers and nurturing female leaders.

According to an analysis by the Federation of Korean Industries, much of the female work force at large companies was engaged in office tasks in the 1980s, while college graduates in particular were employed as translators, promotion officials or secretaries.

However, in the 1990s, companies started to hire both men and women without discrimination, and the number of female employees in manager-level positions jumped significantly in the 2000s. Women were also promoted to executive level positions.

The FKI cited examples of female-friendly policies.

Samsung Electronics currently operates 10 company child care centers at its offices nationwide. Also, since 2009, it has offered a flexible hour system, allowing women to show up at work at any time and work 8 hours a day. Hyundai Motor Group also offers 150,000 won per quarter for a whole year before an employee’s child enters primary school. It also runs child care centers at its Yangjae, Ulsan and Namyang facilities.

GS Retail, an affiliate under GS Group, offers bonuses of 2 million won to employees for their second child, 3 million won for a third child and 5 million won for a fourth child.

Multinational companies, meanwhile, have had policies in place for some time.

“Only recently have local companies started adopting female-friendly policies at their workplaces,” said an official from a multinational company. “It’s been quite a while since foreign companies started adopting those policies and our experience shows that they actually work.”

At MSD, a U.S.-based pharmaceutical company, for example, 46 percent, or 280 employees, of its total 610 workers are women. Also, of the 14 executives at the company, half are women.

The company has been offering a flexible work hour system to all employees, allowing them to work for eight hours anytime in the day if it includes its core working hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Employees can also work from home, and every Friday they get one hour off to celebrate Family Day.


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