Stress takes its toll on Korea’s working mothers
On the day of her death, she woke up early to finish writing a ruling for a trial before collapsing in her bathroom. A few days before Lee’s death, Kim Eun-young, director general of the Asia-Pacific Foreign Affairs Bureau in the Foreign Ministry, also collapsed due to a stroke after accompanying President Moon Jae-in on his trip to the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Moon posted on Facebook that “[Kim] had collapsed due to fatigue from overwork.”
Last January, government worker Kim Seon-suk was found unconscious in the sixth-story stairwell of the Ministry of Health and Welfare building in the Central Government Complex in Sejong and later died. Her cause of death was a heart attack.
In the past, untimely death due to work-related fatigue was limited to middle-aged men in Korea. However, with over 44.6 percent of women now working in Korea, elite, professional working mothers are also dropping dead from overwork.
Judge Lee Seung-yoon graduated from a foreign language high school and Seoul National University with a law degree. She had two sons in elementary school.
“In the past, I used to not mind staying up all night, but now my body aches when I stay up past three in the morning,” Lee wrote online in a post shared with other women judges. “I wonder who would find me if I were to collapse [from overworking].”
“I suspect that it was the impossible workload that Lee had to deal with that prompted her untimely death,” said Choi Wan-joo, head of the Seoul High Court, during Lee’s funeral.
Kim Eun-young of the Foreign Ministry graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in international relations. Last March, she became the first Korean female diplomat to be appointed as a director general. Lee and her husband, who is also a diplomat, have a son who is currently in elementary school.
“[Diplomats] who are in charge of South Asian-Pacific countries have a lot of work to do, but not many people to share the work with,” said one of Kim’s colleagues. “Director Kim depended on painkillers as she went through with all the summits and international meetings that she was in charge of.”
After being hospitalized for one month in Singapore, Kim has partially recovered consciousness. An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that once Kim fully recovers, she will return to Korea.
Kim Seon-suk, the Welfare Ministry official, was a working mom with three children. She had graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in medicine. Up to her death, Kim was working into the weekends on a policy report that would help increase the reimbursement rate for the national health care plan.
The news of working mothers dying suddenly is not news to women across Korea. Many say they have a hard time walking the fine line between managing their time at work and at home.
“When I was a prosecutor, I had calls coming in from female judges at around 11 p.m. on a Saturday asking about a trial that was to take place the following Monday,” said a middle-aged female lawyer who once used to be a prosecutor. “The female judges who work criminal cases instead of civil cases and the ones who stay longer as a judge in the higher court often have the toughest careers.”
When asked on her thoughts about the working conditions for other moms, she added that “she knew more than one female prosecutor who had a miscarriage or weak immune system because of the stress and excessive workload that they have to handle. There isn’t a female prosecutor that doesn’t once go through even a mild disease.”
“Female diplomats are under the constant pressure that they shouldn’t make mistakes,” said a senior to Director General Kim at the Foreign Ministry. “They are always out to prove that they are better than male diplomats.
“These moms also always feel guilty that they aren’t taking care of their children as thoroughly as a stay-at-home mom would. I, too, had to juggle work and taking care of my children, and there was more than once when I thought that I could die because of this.”
There are several working moms who collapse due to fatigue every other day, and their stories rarely make the news.
“Many people around me have died while trying to juggling work and taking care of their children,” said one college professor. “Sometimes, I think I was lucky that I survived.”
The female working moms interviewed all agreed that it was hard to hold down a job and run a household because of Korea’s deeply-rooted patriarchal society.
“Even though the number of female prosecutors has increased, the important positions at offices like the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office are occupied by male prosecutors. Competent female prosecutors are left to compete against each other for the few positions that are left,” said the lawyer.
“There are even occasions when incompetent beta men bully alpha women,” said the professor. “Men avoid taking the workload from their female colleagues once they go on a maternity leave and when a woman works hard, they half-jokingly tease the woman for not being a good mother.”
One female worker who works at a hospital said that companies should pay wives extra when their husbands have to go out drinking with coworkers for work-related reasons, as it’s the wife’s responsibility to take care of the husband once he comes home. Those hours spent taking care of the husband are hours taken out of the wife’s free time, she argues.
People often see women in high-ranking positions as part of society’s elite. However, their lives are often defined by work-related stress.
“The workload that is required for female workers working in professional jobs is the same as any other male worker,” said Kim Young-ran, a member of the research committee for the Korean Women’s Development Institute. “However, it’s harder for [us] because [we] have to do the same work and also take care of the household. Not much attention is given towards the hardship that these women go through in comparison to the pain they have to endure.”
“Because female judges have to take care of their children, there are many occasions when they just give up demanding positions that are usually a prerequisite for a promotion,” said a female judge who works at Seoul. “However, we don’t receive any sympathy or attention from the public just because we are professional workers who earn a lot of money. We have to deal with the hardships we go through ourselves.”
Professional female workers are considering different option that will help other working mothers take care of their children and their careers. Rep. Shin Bo-ra from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party was pregnant with twins earlier this year. When she was working to prepare a bill before a deadline, Shin went without sleep for three days and eventually miscarried one of the twins she was carrying. Shin later proposed a bill aimed at improving conditions for working mothers.
“After attending an Environment and Labor Committee meeting, the very next day, I had my baby through a C-section,” said Shin. “Because the bill I had proposed was being discussed during the regular session of the National Assembly. I only used 53 days of my 90-day maternity leave to come back and attend the National Assembly’s regular session to make sure that the bill was passed.”
“As more woman get married at a later age, the time when they should focus on their career and the time they need to focus on their child’s education overlaps,” said Director General Kim’s colleague. She suggested that more public kindergartens would help working mothers.
Work promotion structures that are biased against women are coming under criticism.
“Workers who apply for maternity leave usually tend to receive a low work performance at the end of the year,” said a lawyer. “There was one female prosecutor who had received the lowest work performance marks for three years straight because she had just gave birth to siblings born a year apart from each other. However, in the end, her abilities shone through. Now, she’s acknowledged as one of the best out there.”
“[For judges], if you work in Seoul for 10 years, then you are required to work in other regions for at least three years,” said one judge. “Because of this rule, it’s hard for female judges to take care of their children. A flexible working environment should be introduced through, at the least, trying to introduce a smart work center.”
In order for workers, who do apply for a maternity leave, not to face disadvantages in promotion, companies need to reduce their workload and employ more people to handle the existing, necessary tasks. According to the Supreme Court, the Korean judicial system deals with about 6.7 million cases every year. This means each judge deals with an average of 675 cases each year. At the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, which is notorious for its workload, each judge has to take 1,233 cases per year. This is a stark difference from the average in OECD nations, which is 200 to 400 per year.
According to an official from the Foreign Ministry, “in order to match the average of the other OECD nations, Korea has to hire 400 to 500 more foreign diplomats.”
“Working mothers feel guilty that they aren’t able to take care of their child as much as a stay-at-home mother would,” said Choi Jin-young, a professor who teaches psychology at Seoul National University. “If they keep focusing on the pressure that others give to them [about their childrearing abilities], they could suffer a stroke. Korean working mothers need to get rid of this kind of guilt.”
Gender equality in parenting is the norm in some societies. In Sweden, “latte papa,” or a father who pushes his child’s stroller in one hand while having a cup of coffee on the other, is a common sight.
“We should move away from the culture that forces us to be consumed by our work and instead focus on our quality of life,” said Lee Jeong-jyu, the Korean ambassador to Sweden.
However, discussion regarding all of the aforementioned measures has not continued. After Kim’s death, the Ministry of Health and Welfare eliminated the rule that required workers to work on holidays. However, social pressure on the job means many workers are still putting in hours on the weekends.
A governmental committee focused on solving Korea’s low birthrate and aging population problem introduced a road map on Nov. 7 aimed at helping working mothers. Many working mothers, however, argue that the policies included are not helpful and made by officials who know little about their lives.
BY CHANG SE-JEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]