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S. Korea grapples with gender discrimination in workplace

South Korea has seen its female employment index improve steadily over the past 10 years, but continues to struggle with gender equality when it comes to parental leave and consequent career breaks, data showed Monday.

Unlike in most developed economies which tend to see the employment rate of women in their 40s peak and start declining in the 50s, Korea has seen women in their late 30s and early 40s -- the prime age for childbirth and childcare -- being pushed out of the labor market.


All seven of the so-called 30-50 club countries have seen progress in the six key female employment indexes from 2008 to 2018, according to a report by the Korea Economic Research Institute.

The 30-50 club, as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, refers to countries with a population of over 50 million having a per capital income of over $30,000

The list currently mostly comprises the G-7 states -- United States, France, Britain, Germany, Japan, Italy. While the underpopulated Canada is the only G-7 state to be excluded from the club, Korea joined in as the seventh member late last year.

During the given period, Asia’s fourth-largest economy has seen the steepest rise in female working-age population, which came to 13.9 percent last year, marking the only double-digit climb. The runner-up was Italy with 8.3 percent and the US came last with 3.6 percent.

The increase rate of newly employed women was also the highest in Korea, standing at 12.7 percent. Germany and Britain came next with 10.2 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively.

The country’s labor force participation rate for women stood at 59.4 percent last year, up from 54.8 percent a decade ago.

Despite the steady and visible advancement, however, Korea still fell far behind other top-tier economies. Topping the list of labor force participation was Germany with 74.3 percent and fifth in rank was the US with 68.2 percent.

The most conspicuous phenomenon, unique to Korea, was the sudden career interruption faced by women in their 30s and 40s.

The employment rates for the 35-39 age group and the 40-44 age group here were 59.2 percent and 62.2 percent respectively, the lowest among the G-7 countries.

Even Italy, which displayed the lowest female employment rate, logged a higher employment level in the 35-44 age zone.

Despite the general improvement in job indexes, the visible career breaks faced by women in their late 30s and early 40s should be taken seriously as a chronic structural problem, according to KERI.

“The chronic social stereotype on gender roles which requires women to take primary charge of housework and child care, policies which place extra burden on employers and the lack of quality jobs constantly hinder the employment of women,” said Choo Kwang-ho, head of the job strategy department at KERI.

“Priority should be placed on practical measures such as flexible working hours and expanded incentives for employers who hire many women.”

By Bae Hyun-jung (

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