When Soo-jin’s manager wants to boost her self-esteem, he reminds her that she managed to secure the one place on his team that is reserved for a woman.
“He told me that if there was more than one woman on the same team, they would start fighting and disrupt the rest of the group,” said Soo-jin, who works in finance at one of South Korea’s biggest corporations.
“He talks about it openly at team dinners. He thinks it makes me feel better about myself,” said the 25-year old, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
Her experience is unexceptional. At another team in her division, male employees openly agonised about hiring a second woman after it became clear that the best-qualified candidate was female.
“They said they were uncomfortable around women because we have a ‘different thinking process’,” said Soo-jin, adding that the company even hands out different-coloured notebooks to male and female employees.
The country’s 31.12 per cent median gender pay gap is the worst among the OECD group of developed countries for the 26th year in a row. The country also has a big difference in labour participation rates: just 55 per cent of Korean women are in the workforce compared with 73.7 per cent of men. South Korea and Japan rank 99th and 116th respectively among 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 gender gap report.
“Women’s employment has risen significantly in their 20s, but their workforce participation falls in their 30s due to marriage and childbirth,” said Kim Nan-joo, a researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute.
“From the companies’ perspective, female employees are considered to give up their career after marriage and childbirth, which naturally puts women in a difficult position to get promoted and play an important role in their work.”
Peter Matanle, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield and author of a recent study for Japanese investment bank Nomura about the commitment of listed Korean companies to inclusive employment practices, said that “women are underused by Korean and Japanese organisations to an outstanding degree”.
“South Korean [women] have the highest educational attainment for women in the OECD, but some of the lowest opportunities in core and managerial employment,” he added. “It’s a huge waste of talent and knowledge.”
Japan has had more success encouraging women into the workforce, under a programme dubbed “womenomics” that began in 2013. This has pushed female participation in the workforce to more than 70 per cent — higher than in the US and Europe.
The proportion of female executives at listed Japanese companies has increased to 9.1 per cent, compared to 1.6 per cent a decade ago, according to the latest government data.
Last month, Suntory’s listed beverage and food business announced Makiko Ono as its first female chief executive, creating a nine-member board where four directors will be female and two will be non-Japanese.
“I hope this will be a driver for a trend where we can be more competitive by having more innovation and ideas as a result of having people of various gender and nationality,” said Ono, who is currently chief sustainability officer at Suntory Holdings.
In South Korea, the conglomerate LG last year appointed women as chief executive of two of its subsidiaries — the first time any of the country’s top five conglomerates had appointed a CEO not from a founding family.
Carmaker Hyundai appointed its first female board member last year, while Samsung Electronics appointed its first female division president from outside the company’s founding family.
But just 11 of the chief executives at South Korea’s top 500 companies were women in October, according to corporate data provider CEO Score — an increase of just 0.7 per cent over the past decade — and three of the 11 come from the founding families. In June 2022, 5.6 per cent of executives at the country’s top 100 firms were female, with more than a quarter of the companies having no female executives at all, according to headhunters Unicosearch.
“It’s a boy’s club,” said Ju-hyun, 45, whose name has also been changed. She is the only woman in a team of 20 managers at a prominent South Korean company.
“There is a shortage of qualified female candidates to begin with, so if those that are promoted don’t do well, it is taken as proof that they shouldn’t have been promoted in the first place, rather than proof that their careers should have been nurtured and encouraged from the beginning,” she added.
Soo-jin and Ju-hyun, who work at different companies in different sectors, both described how their female colleagues had been pressured by managers to return to work soon or immediately after giving birth, or not to come back at all.
“When one of my colleagues got pregnant, she was asked by her manager whether she would really be coming back, how much her husband earned, and whether she had been working just as a hobby,” said Soo-jin.
“The younger generation see what professional women in their 30s are going through and they draw the conclusion that having a family is not going to benefit them in any way,” said Ju-hyun.
Korean labour minister Lee Jung Sik, who has acknowledged a link between gender discrimination in the workplace and South Korea’s low birth rate, has outlined policies including a pilot scheme for public sector bodies and private sector companies to publish breakdowns of the gender mix of their employees.
But observers note that conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol has denied the existence of structural gender discrimination in his country, blaming feminism for South Korea’s low birth rate. Meanwhile, national assembly speaker Kim Jin-pyo of the leftwing Democratic party has suggested conversion therapy for gay people as a means to address the country’s demographic crisis.
“Korean culture remains deeply patriarchal,” said Shin Sang-a, president of the Seoul Women Workers Association. “It is hard to change the deeply rooted perception that women are not competent enough compared to their male partners.”
Industry experts said that in the long term, the failure by business to improve diversity will have financial repercussions if investors withdraw as a result.
“Growing numbers of asset allocators value diversity as an investment consideration,” said Chris Vilburn, head of Asia Stewardship at Goldman Sachs Asset Management.
Last month, the Asian Corporate Governance Association sent an open letter with proposals to improve gender diversity on the boards of listed companies in Japan.
“Gender has become a key component of the responsible investment policies of many asset owners and institutional investors around the world, with an increasing number voting against companies with single-gender boards,” the ACGA said in a letter signed by 30 investors.
Vilburn noted the progress that had been made in Britain after the UK government introduced voluntary targets for female board representation. “In 2010, women filled only 12.5 per cent of UK FTSE 350 board seats — similar to Japan today — but today that number is 40 per cent.”