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Next president of KAIST should be a woman

KAIST plays a critical role in Korea as a trendsetter for the nation in the sciences. Innovations at KAIST quickly become innovations throughout Korea. It was a tremendous breakthrough when Professor Robert Laughlin of Stanford was appointed president of KAIST, bringing a new international emphasis to the institution. KAIST set a precedent through that appointment of hiring foreign faculty that impacted the entire nation. The decision by President Suh Nam-pyo of KAIST to employ English as the primary language of instruction has also done much to increase KAIST’s global profile and sparked a serious discussion about the use of English at the majority of universities in Korea.

As we consider who might serve as the next president of KAIST after Professor Suh Nam-pyo, it is important to keep in mind the symbolic value of that role in reaffirming KAIST’s role as a leading institution in Korea, and the world. I would suggest that, if at all possible, we should appoint a woman as the next president of KAIST.

Korean girls display remarkable aptitude in academics through high school, and an increasing number are being trained in the sciences at the university. Nevertheless, they continue to face many challenges in the work place. A report of the U.K.-based Economist Intelligence Unit in 2010 placed Korea 35th in a “Women’s Economic Opportunity Index” among 113 surveyed countries, but placed it at 104 in terms of women’s legal and social status. The role of women in Korea is increasing rapidly, but with few in science and technology, the distribution of women cross the range of careers is skewed.

The problem is acute. Korea produces some excellent women scientists today. But the number of women scientists is still far too small. Although Korea needs the perspectives of women in science and technology desperately, especially as scientific research is increasingly concerned with such human issues as the environment, aging and disease, most women do not find the future awaiting them in science attractive because the landscape is distinctly lacking in women leaders.

Oddly, Korea faces the possibility that, with Ms. Park Geun-hye considering a run for the top office, there could be a woman as president of Korea even though there are no women as generals, presidents of major research institutes or heads of central ministries. Oddly, Korea encourages young girls to study as hard in school as boys but then does not offer the opportunities appropriate later in life.

Appointing a woman as president of KAIST will send a clear message to the Korean people that women will play a central role in the future of science and technology in Korea. That appointment will give hope to girls that there is a future for them in science and it will prove to the world that Korea intends to be a true leader in technologies, taking the necessary step forwards. MIT has already taken that step with the appointment of Professor Susan Hockfield as president. As women play an increasingly important role in Asia as a whole, KAIST can make Korea’s leadership role manifest.

By Emanuel Pastreich

Emanuel Pastreich is a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. ― Ed.