The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles spotlighting the stories and opinions of female executives in Korea’s finance-banking industry, where the glass ceiling remains. - Ed.
In the early 1990s, South Korea’s corporate landscape had a distinct characteristic: Men made up and led the country’s primary workforce.
The banking-finance industry was no exception. During this time, Korean banks had separate hiring and wage systems for men and women. Female employees were almost always assigned back-end positions deemed less demanding, such as those in the areas of deposits or internal compliance.
Jeong Jong-suk, then a junior female banker at Woori Bank, a major commercial bank in Korea, had lived under this reality. But a turning point came when she found out that an opportunity to work in the loans department, a front-end post, had been taken away by a male supervisor. He had apparently opposed the idea of an “incompetent” woman joining his team.
“Looking back, I think this was the moment that I decided I needed to step up my game,” recalled Jeong, now executive vice president and chief of the wealth management group at Woori Bank, in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.
Jeong Jong-suk, executive vice president and chief of the wealth management group at Woori Bank, speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald at the bank’s headquarters in Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Back in those days, positions deemed central to the bank’s revenue were off limits to women, who were viewed as passive and unfit for “hard-core” jobs. Confirming the misogynistic views were social expectations for women to quit their jobs once they were married.
Determined to prove her competence, Jeong decided to take the bank’s biannual supervisor exam required for those seeking managerial posts.
She was able to pass the exam, with financial sacrifices and the support of her family, who helped look after her two children, an infant and toddler at the time. And her career ascent continued.
As head manager of Woori Bank’s branches in Seoul’s wealthy neighborhood of Gangnam, Jeong secured the No.1 spot nationwide in terms of key performance indicators, or KPI, for three consecutive years. Her achievements eventually led to her promotion to vice president in 2017 and to executive vice president last year.
Jeong now helms the bank’s wealth management group, which assists clients in expanding their private wealth through financial investment vehicles. She is now one of two women among the 22 executives at Woori Bank.
For young women looking to emulate her success, Jeong says while there is no exact formula, the key to upward mobility is “strong business performance” backed by a sense of ownership and dedication.
“Having passion for your work, confidence and a resolve to excel in the task you are given forms the backbone of any successful career for both genders,” Jeong said.
But she understands that women face gender-specific hurdles when it comes to professional advancement.
Jeong has witnessed many talented female peers being pushed to deprioritize work, or quit, over social pressures that place the burden of child care predominantly on the wife.
In addition, working harder to break stereotypes that women are less capable was always a prerequisite. Looking back, she is thankful to have supportive family members who enabled her to focus on her professional life while also raising a family.
Though similar hardships may persist for today’s working women, the Woori executive vice president believes Korea is on the brink of change toward a brighter future.
“Korea is undergoing social and legal changes that are helping shape an environment where more women -- whether it is in banking or another industry -- can perform to their highest potential and move up the corporate ladder,” she said.
Such shifts include Korea’s recent implementation of the 52-hour workweek that mandates companies with more than 300 employees to cap their workweek at 52 hours, in a move aimed at fighting the country’s culture of chronic overwork and poor work-life balance.
Moreover, it is now customary for both men and women to continue working even after marriage, Jeong said, adding that young people today are more attuned to the idea that child care is a shared burden.
Combined with family-friendly corporate policies, such as flexible work hours and child care support, Jeong said it will not be long before more women are promoted to executive roles.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before more women join the boardroom at Korean banks,” she said, projecting visible shifts within the next five to 10 years.
As of now, Woori Bank’s wealth management division alone has four female managers. Jeong expects more competent junior employees -- many of whom are women -- to be rewarded for their performance.
Does that mean Korean women truly can “have it all” these days?
It is hard to say because each person’s situation differs, Jeong noted. But she believes women today, given changes in their social circumstances, should not fear that that having children will disrupt their career goals.
Looking ahead, Woori Bank’s wealth management chief wants to continue steps to develop more profitable investment products to raise the bank’s position to No. 1 in the industry.
Another key task for the year is to oversee the smooth integration of Tongyang Asset Management and ABL Global Asset Management into Woori’s wealth management business, she said.
The two asset management firms were recently sold by China’s Anbang Insurance Group to Woori Financial Group, which took on a holding company structure earlier this year.
By Sohn Ji-young (email@example.com