Not their fault
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
KBS TV drama “Jugglers” aired last winter, telling the story of versatile office secretaries. The female secretaries juggled multiple tasks, running everyday errands as well as politicking for their bosses and cleaning up their messes without embarrassing them or taking credit. In the 2015 KBS drama “Assembly,” Song Yoon-a played the all-capable assistant to a lawmaker with the golden hands of Midas. Disillusioned by the hypocrisy of mainstream politics, she turned a welder-turned-political novice into a righteous lawmaker by using her experience and wisdom to pave the way for new politics.
But in reality, the life of a real female assistant or secretary is a struggle, possibly without a happy ending. The ordeals did not end for Kim Ji-eun after she brought the Me Too movement into the political realm by going on air to expose her boss An Hee-jung — the formerly hugely popular South Chungcheong governor. Even though she had been raped multiple times, she suffered from vulgar gossip and presumptions about her motives.
On two occasions, courts did not issue an arrest warrant for An, suggesting it was difficult to prove the rape. Women criticize the judiciary for its limited understanding of the insecurity and fear a victim can feel under sexual threat and assault. The court rejected the prosecution’s request for pretrial detention, saying there was little worry about the suspect’s possible destruction of evidence or flight. But An reportedly discarded the phone he used to converse with Kim.
Another female assistant is being victimized in a power abuse scandal involving Kim Ki-sik, the new chief of the Financial Supervisory Service. Kim came under fire for taking an intern on an overseas trip paid for by a government think tank that fell under the budgeting and oversight jurisdiction of a subcommittee he headed at the National Assembly. The scandal spilled over to the female intern who, following the trip, was promoted to a permanent position at the legislature as a secretary to a lawmaker. Her picture and private information went viral on social media, inviting hundreds of lewd comments about her behavior and assumptions of selling herself to get a job.
An intern’s trip with a heavyweight lawmaker could raise suspicions. But the scandal should focus on Kim taking the questionable trip and his ethical eligibility to head a financial watchdog requiring the highest moral integrity, not the accompanying woman. It is also undeniably sexist to think that a woman could have only been promoted after a short period if she has become romantically involved with her boss.
A social media page for legislative associates is flooded with accounts from women in the field who lament that they now can never think of accompanying a male lawmaker on an overseas trip for fear of creating a scandal.
What’s worrisome is the undesirable aftermath of the Me Too movement. The so-called “Pence rule” — referring to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence who said he never dined alone with a woman or attended an event where alcohol is served without the presence of his wife — is already casually practiced in workplaces. But such stereotypical rules are another form of discrimination against women in the workplace and bode badly for a healthy labor environment where the two sexes regard one another as equals.
Female secretaries are not at fault. The fault lies with the contemptuous or condescending views on the profession of secretary and female workers. In a seminar sponsored by the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, Lee Bo-ra, head of female secretaries at the National Assembly, criticized the two-facedness of the legislature, which demands corrections in sexual harassments and gender inequality in the corporate sector while preserving itself as a safe haven for sexual misconduct.
Lee claimed that female employees are alone in their fight against sexual innuendo, inequality and assaults in the overwhelmingly male-dominated workplace. Do we really think that heroic female assistants and secretaries only exist in TV dramas? I hope not.
JoongAng Sunday, Apr. 14-15, Page 34