A View of the Korean Women’s Movement

Demonstration for the “comfort women” outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul

In 2000, I interviewed Prof. Kim Sook-jin, a teacher of women’s studies at a Korean university, for Bridges: Intercultural Conversation. The chapter on women’s history began with a discussion of the women’s movement in the United States and then moved on to the Korean women’s movement.

Kim Sook-jin’s story

In Korea we’re getting going with our support of women-friendly political candidates. We have had more success in organizing demonstrations, putting pressure on politicians and educating the public. At first we were primarily interested in changing the laws. Now, I would say the laws are pretty good, although enforcing them remains a problem. We’re still working on that. We’ve organized demonstrations, such as the Wednesday demonstration for the “comfort women.”

Then, when an employer has been found guilty of discrimination against women, we organize a demonstration for that. Unfortunately, we haven’t found the media very responsive to feminist views.

However, things are changing. Even if they don’t express feminist views publicly, women news reporters and anchors are helping to improve the status of women. However, Korean society is still very conservative. We are making a lot of progress in getting rid of the patrilineal system. [A patriline is a line of descent from a male ancestor to a descendant of either sex in which the individuals in all intervening generations are male.] We are also trying to change the customs around memorial services. We’re trying to work with the media to raise these issues, to change attitudes about women’s sexuality, to change everyday life. There’s a lot of resistance. For example, sex before marriage is fairly well accepted now. But if the couple goes to a yŏgwan, and the woman produces a birth control device, the man usually doesn’t like it.

As I mentioned earlier, the principle of equal employment opportunity has been well established in the law, but not in practice. The women’s organizations are demanding improvements in recruiting and promotion. Unfortunately, with globalization having such a devastating effect on the economy, the government doesn’t want to intervene in the private sector. It’s not properly administering, supervising or monitoring compliance with laws like the Equal Employment Act. Besides, 60% of women who work outside the home are employed in very small businesses with four employees or less. Even professional women and office staff in large organizations run into problems in hiring, promotion and salary. It’s illegal to force a woman to quit when she gets married or has a baby, but it often still happens. The Ministry of Labor is supposed to enforce the laws against discrimination, but there aren’t enough supervisors to do the job properly. The labor movement is also focused on helping men.

The division of labor hasn’t changed. Over the ten years I’ve taught women’s studies, I have seen changes in the attitudes of my students. Everyone now agrees that women and men are equal—but it’s in their brains, not in their hearts. Deep down, the men have a problem with it. They think they have to be the breadwinners, they have to make more money and they have to have higher positions. The men seem to think that if women get jobs, they’ll lose theirs. They don’t want any more competition. If one of my male students agrees that he would be happy staying at home and keeping house, the other students laugh at him. However, the current economic and social structure requires women to work outside the home. Society itself is demanding that women contribute, and they have skills to offer. Sharing housework has become necessary. I think a male student who can’t accept that should consider whether he really wants a family.

In employment you see a vicious cycle. Management doesn’t want to invest in women because they think the women will just quit in a few years. On the average, women work only five or six years. So, because the company doesn’t invest any money or training in the women or promote them, women have little sense of accomplishment or vision for the future. In 1997 we conducted a survey of the five biggest companies, and we discovered that only 2% of the female employees were promoted above the assistant manager level. A lot of women aren’t even hired, even if their credentials are as good as the men’s. It’s easy to say that if you want to be promoted you have to work hard. However, we’ve discovered that even those women who knock themselves out taking care of housework, raising children and producing better work than their male colleagues—even those women are discriminated against because they’re women and it’s the man’s job to support the family. So it’s no wonder that women quit. 

I think it’s best if students learn from experience—their own, their mothers,’ their girlfriends.’  Maybe they were laid off because they were women, or there was some problem of sexual harassment at work. I encourage them to express their own ideas and opinions. In real life, a student can call an organization or send an email. I tell the students I understand why they might feel pressured to keep silent. They don’t want to get labeled as feminists.

1994 interviews with two American executives, friends of mine provided more information about the position of women in the white-collar workplace. 

Lawrence’s story

Employees of the bank I work for organized a union some time ago, but the men in the union had virtually abandoned it so they wouldn’t have to deal with the women’s issues. The women had more votes, and they were saying, “Give us a 30% salary increase and you take a 5% salary increase. Give us a career path. Don’t make us leave when we get married.”

The men complained, “They don’t understand the sophistication of the problems that we have.” They also wanted a career path and more money, but they saw their issues as much different. “Really, how can we take this seriously when we have to sit across the table from women who are making these ridiculous demands that have nothing to do with business.” I was rooting for the women on that one.

The way we treat women here is just outrageous. The women have the same credentials as the men have, but we pay them very little. Up until two years ago we insisted that they leave either when they got married or when they reached twenty-five, whichever came first. We have changed that system, so that now they can stay. And we’ve played some catch-up on salary, so that they no longer make half of what the men do, but it’s still no more than say 65% of the male salary.

We hire only the graduates of leading universities—Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University. The job interviews are incredibly sexist. We ask women job candidates, “Will you do the three C’s—coffee, copies, cleaning?” Anyone who seems to have a negative reaction is not hired. The interviewers are the senior Koreans and me. We would each score people separately. In the early days when I didn’t speak much Korean, I was looking for body language, eye contact, poise, energy, that sort of thing. At the end of these sessions we would compare our scores, and the correlation was amazing—but only with the men.   We had a woman here who had a double major in math and economics. I thought, “My God, if she stays with us, if we treat her halfway decently, she’s going places.” They didn’t ask her a single question about her studies. They asked her about her religion, what her mother did, what her father did, if they were living together, had there ever been a divorce in the family, when she was going to get married. I mean, the more talented a woman was, the more demeaning the questions were. They did hire her.

About a year after she was hired, an anonymous discrimination complaint was filed with the Bureau of Labor Standards and the National Labor Relations Board. The male staff of the Labor Relations Board visited the male staff of the bank. During the time it took to drink one cup of tea, it was decided that there was no problem, that we were really the most progressive of Korean institutions. That was the end of it. Six months later this woman quit. I was really sorry to see her go. I had insisted on including her in departmental lunches. But I got comments, even from the youngest male staffer, like, “She’s arrogant.”

“What do you mean ‘She’s arrogant’?”

“She seems to be very impressed with herself and what she knows.”

“But is she right? Is she just demonstrating that she knows something?”

“Well, she’s—she’s just very arrogant.”

No one would listen. When I tried to bring a moderating influence into the conflict, they laughed at me as much as they laughed at her.

Some time ago we took a woman who’s been working with us for five or six years and made her an officer in a new investment support team. It was very much a token position, but Korean management saw this move as being really avante guarde, really ground-breaking. I said, “Fine, now that’s entry level. How much longer before she becomes an assistant manager?” People just looked at me like I was from the moon. Ultimately, she left for the States, where she’s doing quite well. Then people forgot about women officers.

At my home bank States, we had a couple of Korean American women, like Sandra Noh, who is a vice-president. When she came out to Korea for a brief visit, I was delighted to show her around. She was far more advanced than the male staff here, so that she could actually teach them. People looked at her as quite an oddity. There was a lot of giggling, a lot of discomfort and a lot of sexual innuendo from the men, but I saw that the women were cheering her on.

Scott’s story

Several incidents here have led me to change some of my views. I tend to be conservative. But there was an incident involving one of our so-called secretaries, a woman with a master’s degree who speaks and writes English as well as anybody in our office. They were using her to type, answer the phone, and get coffee during the meetings just because she’s a woman. After seeing how capable she was, I decided she had talent and assigned her a couple of projects, minor things that probably nobody else would have wanted.

She said, “Look, I’d really like to do this, and I think I can do the work, but I can’t accept it.”

So I suggested giving her more responsibility to some people in such a way that they thought it was their idea. I gave her assignments, and she did very well, so I gave her more. But then it reached a point where the guys said, “Wait a minute. She’s doing almost what we do.”

Their rationalizations for the inequality could be very convincing–like she’s going to get married and quit and the company will have wasted all this training on her. But I resisted. Then a year later she got married and her husband ordered her to quit her job. In hindsight, I still don’t agree with wasting talent like that, even if a woman is only going to be around for another year or two. And of course her salary was nothing like the men’s. The company keeps two sets of payroll records in order to obscure the fact that women are being paid fifty percent of what men are.

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13 years ago

I teach university students and have done so for the past 7 years in Seoul. It is maddening to see smart talented women endure this kind of sexism. However, what is even sadder is how few of the women can find the courage to not live their lives according to the expectations of others, i.e. their own mothers, fathers, husbands, etc. They are victims of a very thorough and effective indoctrination through their culture that teaches them their place. They learn it very well that their place is below. Below a man.

13 years ago

[A patriline is a line of descent from a male ancestor to a descendant of either sex in which the individuals in all intervening generations are male.]

I’m confused by the above. Females are needed in order to produce the males so how can all intervening generations be male??