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[Herald Interview] Gender gaps overshadow South Korea’s progress

Pedro Conceicao, the head of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report Office, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Sept. 29. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Pedro Conceicao, the head of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report Office, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Sept. 29. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)


South Korea has progressed a long way over the past three decades. But that journey has not been the same for the country’s women, the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report suggests.

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Pedro Conceicao, the UNDP director of the Human Development Report Office, said that Korea “has evolved since the 1990s to have a very balanced growth” on the Human Development Index.

The HDI looks at three components: economy, health and education. These components are measured by gross national income per capita, life expectancy at birth and mean years of schooling, respectively.

“What’s remarkable is not only was the progress significant, it was done in a very balanced way. The economy expanded, but so did the life expectancy at birth, and so did the education indicators,” Conceicao said.

While “this remarkable story of progress deserves to be celebrated,” Korea’s gender inequality isn’t allowing human development to take place in the same way for men and women, he said.

Korea’s HDI value went from 0.737 in 1990 to 0.925 in 2021, which is far above the world average of 0.732.

By contrast, the UNDP’s Gender Development Index found Korea to be consistently behind the rest of the world from 2009 through last year, when the latest figures are available. The GDI looks at disparities between men and women in the HDI components of economy, health and education.

The UNDP has two gender indices where Korea does well in terms of health components, Conceicao said. Life expectancy at birth for women is higher than that for men, for instance, which is a pattern seen in many countries. Korea also has a good performance in maternal mortality and the adolescent birthrate.

But when it comes to indicators associated with women’s economic empowerment and political participation, “the gaps are very large,” he said.

“When it comes to GNI per capita, men earn almost twice as much, or more than twice as much, than women in Korea. The gaps that exist in the share of men and women in the labor force participation rate is also very high,” he pointed out.

“That shows that when it comes to the economy, particularly, there’s still a lot of room to improve.”

The share of women in the National Assembly is “very low” here, at less than 20 percent, he said, which compares with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average of about one-third as of end-2021.

While there has been improvement in reducing gender inequality, that improvement has not been as quick as it has been for other countries of similar economies, he said.

“In the case of Korea, what the data shows is that the gaps have been shrinking, but not as quickly as in other countries that are comparable.” 

Over the past decade, the biases that South Korea harbors against women as a society have also risen, he said, citing the database used by the UNDP.

“Over the last two waves of the World Value Survey, which is a database that compares countries over periods of several years, in Korea, there is actually an increase in the biases against women,” he said.

The surveys identify biases through answers to questions, such as if a respondent says they believe a man would be a better political leader or a business executive than a woman. “If someone says yes to a question like this -- that a man would be a better leader -- we code that as a bias,” he explained.

Conceicao said this backlash could be interpreted as “society’s reaction to a situation where women start acquiring more power, whether it be economic power or political power.”

“Why are Koreans reacting in this way? Why do so many believe that a man would be a better political leader than a woman or that a man would be a better executive than a woman? There is no basis to this belief,” he said.

“I think it’s an invitation for reflection in Korean society.”

Heriberto Tapia, the UNDP Human Development Report Office’s research adviser, said in the same interview that around 9 out of 10 people in Korea have biases against women.

“This is very, very high,” he said, adding that these biases were highly common across the world and that Korea did not stray far from the world average.

The research adviser said biases against women held by Koreans, as demonstrated through the survey results, were shown to match some of the challenges to gender equality in the country.

“For example, the area where we can find more biases is in political participation, which is precisely one of the indicators where we can -- through objective data -- say is not reflecting enough progress in Korea,” he said.

“Another dimension where the biases are relatively large in Korea is in the economic dimension, which is also consistent with the indicators showing that women are making roughly half (of what men earn).”

Tapia said the parallel between the negative perceptions and inequalities showed that in order to make more progress, people’s attitudes and beliefs also need to be explored.

To understand the full extent of the “bottlenecks that are holding us back” from progress, Conceicao said societies need to look beyond policies.

“Of course, the policies pursued by the government are very important. But sometimes what drives what happens and what we do, it has to do with social norms -- what people think and what the society thinks,” he said.

He said what is being witnessed in Korea with worsening biases against women is not unprecedented. “Even countries like Sweden, which has very high levels of gender equality, had a large backlash against gender equality the last time we did this analysis,” he said.

One way to read this data is to see that the progress toward gender equality is “dynamic, not linear,” he said. “It goes through advances and retreats.”

That being said, from the UNDP’s perspective, this kind of backlash is a “cause for concern and worry,” he said. “There are plenty of reasons why we should be worried and try to find ways of combating (the backlash).”

Conceicao contended that economic inefficiency is another price society pays for gender inequality.

“When you have a gap of 20 percentage points in the labor force participation between men and women, as we have in Korea, and when you have Korean men earning twice as much or more than twice as much as Korean women, there is an economic inefficiency,” he said.

“Because essentially, the society is not making the best use of the of the talent that’s available to them.”

He said despite all the challenges that Korea faces, particularly in gender, Korea “remains for the most part an inspiration for the world given the progress the country has made going back to the (Korean) War.”

He went on, “Hopefully the message for Korea is to build on that path. As we frequently say in our reports, human development journeys are open-ended and never finished.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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