A month dedicated to all women

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A month dedicated to all women


From front left, Arirang TV CEO and former CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-ae, Ambassador of the Philippines Raul Hernandez, former member of girl group 2NE1 Sandara Park, former National Assembly Rep. Jasmine Lee and her daughter, and others celebrate National Women’s Month in the ambassador’s residence in central Seoul on Thursday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

The lawn of the residence of Ambassador of the Philippines to Korea Raul Hernandez bustled with women in spring dresses chatting away in Tagalog, English or a mix on the evening of March 23 as the setting sun glinted on wine glasses.

The garden party was in celebration of National Women’s Month, an annual event in the Philippines, which ranked highest in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index in Asia last year.

“I would like to welcome all of you to my humble residence to celebrate Women’s Month in Seoul,” said Ambassador Hernandez. “This will be the second of this kind of celebration where I am the only guy surrounded by beautiful ladies.”

Joining the celebration were former National Assembly Rep. Jasmine Lee, Arirang TV CEO and former CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-ae and former member of girl group 2NE1 Sandara Park, who lived in the Philippines for 12 years and made a name for herself there since 2004 when she won second-place in the talent show “Star Circle Quest.”

“We are really far behind the Philippines in gender equality,” Sohn said addressing the women in the living room for a lively discussion of women’s rights. “If anything, the gap has probably widened.”

The Philippines ranked seventh in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index for the entire world last year. South Korea ranked 116th.

“I entered the workforce some 30 years ago, in the mid-1980s,” Sohn said. ”It was the first year that Korean companies actually had Korean female college graduates as full-time employees. And I remember there was a lot of celebration about women finally making it in Korea.

“And then about a year or two later, most of my friends quit. They just couldn’t handle the unequal treatment they got at Korean corporations,” she said. “[The companies] didn’t have any idea of how to treat a woman as something more than just a woman.”

Sohn said not much seems to have changed over the decades.

“Some people say, ‘Look at how many women there are in Korean companies, in the Foreign Ministry more than 50 percent of the diplomats are women. How great is that?’ I say really, that doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “They can’t stay. The society doesn’t let them stay.

“They reach 30 and get married, and even when they get married they’ll stay [in the workforce]. But then when they have that kid, it’s ‘Is it your kid or your career?’

“How career-driven must you be to sacrifice your child for your career?” she said. “There’s an implication there. And when they come back to work, they cannot go back to the jobs that they used to have. They go back to much more menial jobs. So women are stuck and it doesn’t seem to change.”

Sohn began her career as a reporter at Business Korea before working at the New York Times. She joined CNN as a correspondent in Seoul in 1995. She has three daughters.

“When I was on the foreign affairs committee at the National Assembly, we used to visit a lot of embassies,” said Lee, the first naturalized Korean citizen to become a lawmaker in the National Assembly. She was a representative of the Saenuri Party, the former name of the Liberal Korea Party, from 2012 to 2016. “The men were basically saying, ‘Yes, we need gender equality because 10 years from now we will have more women than men [in the diplomatic workforce].’

“So it’s going to be a tough fight,” she said. “And for immigrant women, the fight is more than just about women’s rights. Some people I met while I was a representative would talk to me in Korean, then suddenly stop and ask me if I understand what they are telling me.

“It would be an insult to Korean society if they actually elected someone who can’t even speak Korean,” she said. “So when they first look at you, they just see an immigrant wife. But it is time for Philippine women to come out, step up and be leaders [here], to tell people that this is what an immigrant wife is.”

Filipinos at the diplomatic event called for continued efforts from women and men around the world to promote gender equality.

“In the Philippines, one out of every five households is headed by a female,” said Anne Katherine Cortez, a Korea International Cooperation Agency scholarship student majoring in international studies at Ewha Womans University. “They have the woman, or mother, as the breadwinner of the family. And this makes a lot of women decision-makers at home. The system is then reflected in the greater society - our vice president is a woman, and during the presidential election, two candidates were women. We hope this trend continues.”

“I think it’s important that men get involved in the issue too,” said Maki Yuzon, a master’s student of bio-nanotechnology at Gachon University in Gyeonggi. “The fight won’t be won if women are the only warriors in the battle. It should be both men and women fighting.”

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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