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Gender Gap, the Consistent Phenomenon

Where does South Korea place among the 132 countries that comprise the World Economic Forum’s latest study measuring the equality of women? 104th in 2010, 107th in 2011, 108th in 2012, and 111th in 2013. As of this year, South Korea finds itself landlocked between the United Arab Emirates and Zambia (both countries reporting slightly more gender equality). The index mentioned, found in the Global Gender Gap report provides a “framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities around the world.” The distance of the “gender gap” in the context of the report, is the amount of inequality between the two sexes concerning economic, political, education-and-health-based criteria. This article hopes to echo some of the findings of the report as it pertains to South Korea and add some perspectives through one foreigner’s eyes.


If educational attainment was the only criteria to assess equality between women and men in South Korea, the picture would be somewhat different. The literacy rate of both men and women here is well-known to be among the highest in the world. Equally impressive is the enrollment of boys and girls in primary and secondary education where both sexes enjoy virtually identical opportunity at every level until college. However, enrollment at university is where the story changes; with nearly 30 percent fewer women than men enrolled in higher education. This statistic is important when considering areas of the report dealing with some of the more severe causes of the gender gap, such as those concerning economic participation and opportunity as well as political empowerment.


According to a survey by MBC news, 56 percent of women leaving the workforce in South Korea were in their 30s. “Their careers end after marriage and having children,” reported MBC. Because of this and other factors, a 900,000 KRW monthly pay difference was calculated in the cited 2011 study measuring wage equality for similar work. A 2012 study by the Korean Women’s Development Institute came up with similar findings. According to Kim Young-ock, “When a man earns ten cents, a woman will only earn six.”


While wage equality is an area showing a wide gender gap, it is the amount of women legislators, senior officials and managers that pales in comparison to men who possess these positions. In fact, men occupy 89 percent more of these positions than women do as of this year. Similarly, while the head of state of South Korea is female, the political empowerment of females in general in South Korea is among the lowest of the 136 countries. Three-fourths of these positions are occupied by men.


It is clear that the gender gap for women is most severe both politically and economically and it is these areas that must be addressed to improve the equality between the sexes. From a social perspective, it is possible for the author to offer a question concerning the role of traditional cultural norms and their culpability in this discussion of gender gap. While the author’s experience with gender gap issues in South Korea is anecdotal, perhaps it will offer an interesting perspective for the Korean readers to consider. Sometimes the innocuous little things in Korean society should be considered to evaluate whether they are parts of Korean traditional society and should be retained or anachronisms of a patriarchal past. At a previous workplace in the author’s past, the male principal often made female co-teachers to pour coffee at meetings and school dinners. It was often felt that this was demeaning and in conflict with not only the values of the non-native Korean staff but also the native Korean teachers-it was as if the younger female staff were being treated as hostesses in a restaurant. More recently at Dongguk, the experience repeated itself- it was a male asking a female to pour drinks and serve food. Let me be perfectly clear; in the United States, women would probably be quite offended at any male counterpart asking them to pour drinks, be it their boss or not.


In conclusion, the acts around the office and life inside the home offer insights and opportunities to close the gender gap if we are aware of them in the first place and if meaningful dialogue ensues between the sexes. Traditions and norms can and should, perhaps, be considered more deeply to see whether they make society more unique and special or retain less desirable aspects of society. As a closing note, the author wishes to mention his own country, the United States, was 25th in the survey, a performance that requires some serious introspection as well.

Josh McNicoll  mcnicolljosh@gmail.com

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