I usually don’t write about gender. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in gender equality, quite natural since I am a woman raising three daughters. But advocating for the issue usually doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons.
First, most of the proposals set forth by the government or political parties during election seasons sound too much like appeasement packages, you know, like we will build you a bridge over that river that floods all the time if you vote for me. This includes various measures to lengthen maternity leave, lengthen child care leave, make it easier to go on maternity leave, make it easier to go on child care leave. We have gotten to a point where a woman choosing to have a child is guaranteed three months of fully paid maternity leave, up to a year of child care leave with partial pay and an additional year of child care leave with no pay -- but not a guarantee that a job will await her when the two years of “child care” is over. And we are still getting proposals to lengthen this period, as well as some half-hearted and futile attempts to include paternity leave in the process.
These measures not only seem like Band-Aid approaches, but also self-destructive to gender equality, especially in the workplace. Now if you are a woman that feels working outside the home is not for you, and especially if you feel this career is not something you feel very strongly about, then the longer the time you get off from work to take care of your child the better.
But what if you don’t feel this way? What if you are a woman who has just gotten the job of her dreams and is passionate about what this career will hold for you? How is that career path going to look after two years of staying at home in the name of “child care?” Not so rosy.
A recent newspaper article stated that men who attempt to go on paternity leave are told, it they do, they are on the path of “lifelong underling.” I don’t believe this is different for women.
But the tragic fact is that statistics show more women straight out of college are successful in finding jobs than men. It has now become the norm that the top candidates of many government exams are women, and while the facts are not made public, the top successful candidates of most private companies, large or small, are probably women. That was certainly the case when I was president of Arirang TV and Radio, when we had to struggle to find male candidates who came even close to the top female candidates.
What happens to these smart and aggressive women after they enter the workplace and start thinking about a family? This is where they are faced with a choice that no man needs to make.
Career or family?
Increasingly the modern Korean woman is choosing the former. Hence, you have the deep divide between women who leave the workplace to have children, and those who choose to continue their career and therefore decide not to have any children at all.
I know I simplify.
There are countless more issues that come into play, the availability of child care facilities, flexible working conditions in the workplace, or the support of the father and other family in the process of child-rearing. But what frustrates me to no end is that women are still being forced to make such a choice despite the existence of these factors that could change the situation.
I entered the workforce in 1985, the year female college graduates were for the very first time hired as a part of the college graduate recruits at the big conglomerates, or the chaebol. Then, some companies had actual regulations that dictated female employees must quit upon marriage. But as I started work under such conditions, I never imagined that 30 years later the situation would be even tougher for career-driven woman.
I don’t deny that people like me, who had to struggle with such social pressures throughout their career, are at fault for not speaking up more and not fighting to abolish and change gender prejudices. In a feeble attempt at an excuse, we were really, REALLY busy trying to do it all -- the work, the family -- and not drop dead on the sidewalk in the process.
Also, I feel that my generation, which struggled with almost no support from government or society, feels in some way that the current crop of women are too pampered, and so are not as aggressive in trying to push for substantial and fundamental change as we should be. I know I am guilty of this.
But here is why I am now writing about gender. Recent revelations have shown me that I was wrong in thinking of the gender issue as an issue for women wanting to have it all. Or for even giving women the same chances and choices as men.
Advocates will tell you that gender equality is not about sharing the pie more evenly. It is about how inputting half the population that is educated and motivated into the workforce will stimulate the economy and therefore make the pie bigger for all.
Recent research shows that as much as $28 trillion could be added to the global economy by 2025 if all countries bridged the gender gap -- a magnitude equivalent to the combined US and Chinese economics today. In neighboring Japan, “womenomics” is one of Prime Ministers Abe’s main strategies for stimulating the Japanese economy.
But in Korea, women’s issues are mostly viewed as gender issues and do not play a prominent role in the current economic stimulus strategies. Rather, it seems to me that the government policies focus more on the national priority of Korea’s extremely low birthrate and delegate a lot of attention and resources on trying to get women to bear children.
Korean women already know this is not the problem nor the solution.
And you wonder why policymakers scratch their heads when their population growth measures are met with such disdain from women’s groups enraged at what they see as policies that treat women like cows that need to breed.By Sohn Jie-ae
Sohn Jie-ae is an invited professor of the Graduate School of International Studies at Ewha Womans University. -- Ed.