Sexism holds Korea Inc. back

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Sexism holds Korea Inc. back


As the second year of her five-year term begins, President Park Geun-hye plans to publicly identify companies with low female-employment levels, thus embarrassing management. [Joint Press Corps]


William Pesek

The presidency of Park Geun-hye would appear to have settled South Korea’s gender debate. Just as some Americans like to believe racism ended the moment they elected a black leader, many Koreans figure their nation shed its sexist heritage the moment a woman became president.

Neither is true, of course. In February, the same month Park marked her first anniversary in office, Korea received ominous news from the UN’s gender-equality office: The country ranked near the bottom yet again in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of the number of female cabinet members. It’s time that Park gave a more visible job to a woman, not just the gender-affairs portfolio. Why not a female foreign minister or finance minister?

As the second year of her five-year term begins, Park is trying a different tactic on Korea Inc.: shame. As part of her push to create 1.65 million extra jobs for women, Park plans to publicly identify companies with low female-employment levels, thus embarrassing management.

In a recent op-ed, former Asian Development Bank chief economist Lee Jong-wha pointed out that in South Korea, “women remain underutilized, to the detriment of the entire economy. Indeed, any effective South Korean growth strategy must create more and better economic opportunities for women, in part by establishing more accommodating working environments and instituting a more diverse and flexible education system.”

But outside of imposing formal quotas, it’s not clear how the government can convince executives that better utilizing the female work force is good for growth, innovation and profits.

There are some things Park can do, of course. In December, the nation’s first female president named Korea’s first female bank head: Kwon Seon-joo now runs the state-owned Industrial Bank of Korea. Over at the Bank of Korea, Kim Choong-soo (whose term ended on March 31) named the institution’s first female deputy governor and created a career-track program to identify female talent.

Park’s name-and-shame policy hopes to broaden this dynamic. With the nation’s population aging rapidly and immigration less open than economists might like, Korea needs women to serve as a new growth engine. Park wants to lift the female employment rate to 61.9 percent, from 53.5 percent, before her term ends in 2018.

She also directed Cho Yoon-sun, minister for gender equality, to prod the family-run industrial groups called chaebol to scrap male-friendly employment practices.

Also, executives of companies with 500 employees or more and a sub-70 percent female share of staff based on their industry’s average for three straight years will be outed. Gender McCarthyism? Hardly. Korea Inc. has had free rein to maintain its patriarchal ways and seniority-based hiring and promotion systems to the detriment of economic growth. It’s past time executives stepped out of their comfort zones and embraced more enlightened human-capital policies.

Park’s government plans to boost subsidies for child care leave and preferential treatment for “family-friendly” companies on government contracts. Other steps include encouraging more flexible working hours, broadening day care programs and improving training for mothers seeking to re-enter the labor force. Education campaigns might help, too. A survey coinciding with International Women’s Day finds Korean husbands spend less time helping out at home than their OECD peers.

Park also is creating a database of 100,000 female talents to help achieve greater equality at senior levels in the public and private sectors.

One of the biggest threats to Korea’s 3.7 percent growth is demographic headwinds. Last year, the OECD estimated that Korea would add about 1 percentage point to growth if it had more equal employment. That would come in handy ahead of 2018, when the working-age population is projected to start declining.

Korea still suffers from sexist political and business cultures. And if humiliating those whose antiquated views are limiting the nation’s future helps, then by all means shame away.

*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist.

By William Pesek

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