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Gender sensitivity takes education, practice

You are told you look “sexy” at a job interview. Someone at your work place leaves porn on his computer. Your superior says your skirt is too short. At a social drinking event, someone makes a sexual joke and everyone laughs but you.

Have you just been sexually harassed?

Yes, you have, if you felt humiliation, cruelty or indignity, regardless of the initial intention of the offender.

But in reality, it’s all in limbo. Whether you feel victimized or not, the person in authority can use their position to help them get away with it, especially in a work place where power hierarchy is clearly visible. They might say: calling you sexy is simply a compliment; having porn on their computer is not your business but theirs. They comment on the way you dress because they care. The sexual jokes weren’t directed towards you.

To fight back, you need to be sensitive. Gender-sensitive, to be more precise.


On a Monday afternoon at the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education in Seoul, about 30 people gathered in a classroom to learn how to be “gender-sensitive” and how to define sexual harassment. Most of them were officials from corporations and educational institutions -- the law requires at least one person from every sector of private and public organizations’ office to take gender sensitivity training session at the institute -- assigned to take the class to become counselors at their work. Together, they performed a case study. Is being called sexy being harassed? Men and women are both confused. 
Gender education trainer Jeon Mi-hyun lectures at the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education on sexual harassment in Seoul on Aug. 16. (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald)
Gender education trainer Jeon Mi-hyun lectures at the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education on sexual harassment in Seoul on Aug. 16. (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald)

“Doesn’t it feel good when someone tells you you are sexy? I do!” said a female participant, with a puzzled look on her face.

“I’m too old to be called sexy,” said one woman. “But I think some younger women may like to hear that.”

Male students, only filling about three seats in the classroom, simply shrugged.

Jeon Mi-hyun, the teacher for the day, clarified by saying the term “sexy” must be carefully used, especially because the expression inevitably contains a sexual connotation. “It only praises beauty of one’s body over his or her intelligence in a work place,” said Jeon. “And that’s the very danger of the term ‘sexy,’ because by saying so you are sexually objectifying the person when she or he should be appreciated based on their ability and work performance.”

Other examples of sexual harassment include: Questions and discussions about a person’s sex life; touching a person in a sexual way; commenting on someone’s sexual attractiveness or unattractiveness; telling a woman she belongs at home; eyeing someone in a suggestive way and writing sexually suggestive letters or notes.

As complex as it can be, sexual harassment is nothing new in contemporary Korean society. In July, Kang Yong-seok, a 40-year-old lawmaker, created a scandal by allegedly telling a group of university students that anyone who wants to be an anchorwoman must be willing to “give all,” implying sexual intercourse, to her superiors to be successful. He was formally expelled from the Grand National Party on Friday because of his remarks.

In a recent survey by Incruit, one of the biggest job posting sites in Korea, 47.5 of the 549 respondents said they have been sexually harassed at work. Of the respondents, 75.9 percent were women. A Ministry of Employment and Labor survey this year showed that out of the 1,000 respondents year, 60.2 percent of working men said sexual harassment at their work place isn’t “too serious” while 50.6 percent of women said the opposite.

Why is the issue perceived so differently by the two sexes?

Lee Jung-joo, Gender Trainers Division Program Assistant Manager of the institute, said many still need to be “gender sensitive” in today’s Korea.

“To be gender sensitive is to be considerate of the differences,” she said. “It’s the ability to recognize gender issues and how men and women have different perceptions and interests arising from their different social positions and roles.

“For example, women would often need to spend more time in public bathrooms than men, but most public facilities and amenities are designed based on men’s needs, taking that as the norm.”

Hence, what men would consider appropriate could be very uncomfortable for women. “Many offenders of sexual harassment sometimes don’t even realize what they are doing is offensive,” Lee said. For example, a middle-aged male school teacher once asked during one of the gender-sensitive training sessions, if it’s wrong to call a “very ugly woman” pretty.

“The training sessions can often be difficult,” Lee admitted. “The concept of ‘gender sensitivity’ can be almost foreign to the older generations, who are more familiar with the traditional Confucian values and proverbs such as ‘it goes ill with the house where the hen sings.’”

Lee is still optimistic. “Ultimately, we’d like to spread the message that our society will only become better with more diversity and open attitude.”


During a break in the class, male student Kim Sun-ha sat down outside the classroom. The official from Kunjang College said it’s difficult to apply what he learns at the institute at his school. “What I’ve been learning is great,” he said, “but knowledge doesn’t solve everything. It’s difficult to convey what I know from attending classes here because most of the harassment cases don’t even go to court. And when I tell that to people at my school, I’m afraid that they’ll only abuse that and get away with their actions even more.”

According to the Korean Institute for Gender Equality and Education, 65.8 percent of sexual harassment cases involve a work superior attacking a person in a relatively vulnerable position. Most of the victims don’t speak up because they are afraid that it’s going to affect their job and rarely make a legal case.

By Claire Lee (