Korean women are the most educated in the world. With the country having the highest college entrance rate in the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the figure for women has exceeded that of men since 2009. Last year, nearly 75 percent of female high school graduates entered university, while 68.6 percent of male graduates did so, according to data from the national statistics office.
But women’s educational advantage has not led to more active participation in economic activity. The proportion of female college graduates engaged in economic activity was more than 25 percent lower than the figure for their male counterparts last year.
In recent years, government policymakers have strengthened efforts to encourage more women to join the workforce, albeit with limited success. A recent study, however, should draw their attention to another key task: narrowing the income gap between men and women.
Korean men who worked full time received a median wage that was 39 percent higher than their female counterparts in 2010, according to a study by the National Assembly Research Service. The gender wage gap, which was the biggest among the 25 OECD member states surveyed, remained almost the same as the 40 percent recorded a decade earlier.
The most advanced nations also had gender wage differences biased toward men ― 14.1 percent for France, 16.8 percent for Germany, 18.8 percent for the U.S., 19.2 percent for the U.K., 21.2 percent for Finland and 28.7 percent for Japan. But the gap was exceptionally wide in Korea, even in comparison with Japan, which had the second-highest wage gap in the survey.
Seemingly, the main reason for Korean women’s lower pay is that a majority of them have low-paid irregular jobs in the service and retail sectors. Only 4 in 10 female wage earners were regular employees last year.
What should be further noted is that this unstable and disadvantageous employment status for women is closely related to the difficulty they have juggling work and family responsibilities. In Korea, which is not yet completely free of its traditional male-dominated culture, women are supposed or made to shoulder a heavier burden in child care and housekeeping.
According to data from Statistics Korea, women who quit their jobs due to marriage, pregnancy or childbirth accounted for 20.3 percent of all housewives in 2013, up 4.1 percent from a year earlier. It is virtually impossible for women to return to their workplaces at the same position after a long career hiatus.
They are likely to land low-paid jobs on a temporary or irregular basis. This phenomenon is reflected in the fact that the gender wage gap is highest in the age group of 30-55.
A two-pronged approach is needed to reduce the income inequality between men and women.
First, efforts should be strengthened to enable female employees to continue to remain at work. In addition to support from the government, companies are required to improve their working conditions to be more family-friendly. Husbands should try to become better and more equal partners of their working spouses.
It will also be helpful to create more decent jobs with flexible working hours, which could be taken up more easily by highly skilled and well-educated women.
The effective reduction of the wage gap between male and female workers will be a key barometer of whether Korean society has reached a substantive gender equality.