Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee recently stressed the importance of utilizing women in the workforce, saying talented female employees should be allowed to become CEOs. Lee held a rare session last week with a small number of female executives from Samsung companies to express his commitment to fostering women CEOs.
“When you are an executive, you cannot always display all your ability. But if you become a CEO, you can. So women executives should also become CEOs,” Lee was quoted as saying. His remark drew keen attention as it signaled the nation’s largest chaebol group would launch serious efforts toward removing the glass ceiling ― referring to barriers that keep women from rising to the highest rung of the corporate ladder.
Until December last year, Samsung Group had never had a female CEO in its 72-year-old history. The tradition was broken when Lee Bu-jin, the chairman’s eldest daughter, was promoted to president and CEO of Hotel Shilla.
This December, Samsung Electronics is expected to promote many female department heads to executives. In May, the company unveiled a plan to fill 10 percent of its executive posts with women by 2020. Currently women’s share of executive posts at Samsung affiliates is a mere 1.9 percent.
Samsung’s ratio is lower than the average in Korea. According to a survey conducted by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, as of late last year, women accounted for 4.7 percent of the executive jobs at large companies with over 1,000 employees. This represented an over threefold jump from just 1.5 percent in 2007.
Korea compares unfavorably with other advanced countries ― Women hold 39.5 percent of the corporate executive posts in Norway, 27.3 percent in Sweden, 24.5 percent in Finland and 15.7 percent in the United States.
The main reason women are underrepresented in Korean boardrooms is the male-oriented corporate culture of domestic companies. Therefore, the first step toward fostering female CEOs is to make this culture more women-friendly.
More than anything else, companies need to change the current practice of forcing employees to work long hours. This makes it especially difficult for female workers to harmonize work and family duties. They also need to get rid of many disadvantages women face in promotions and work assignment.
Reforming the corporate culture is not only a sine qua non for cultivating female CEOs but the most effective way to cope with population aging, since more women would be willing to have babies if they face no disadvantages following childbirth.