Gender inequality in South Korea

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Gender inequality in South Korea refers to the unequal opportunities and treatment men and women face in South Korea.[1] Derived from deep-rooted patriarchal ideologies and practices, gender inequality in South Korea is consistently ranked as one of the highest in the world.[2][3] While gender inequality remains especially prevalent in South Korea's economy and politics, it has improved in healthcare and education.[3]

Gender Statistics[edit]

Due to the various methods of calculating and measuring gender inequality, South Korea's gender inequality rankings vary across different reports. While the 2017 UNDP Gender Inequality Index ranks South Korea 10th out of 160 countries, the World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 118th out of 144 countries in its 2017 Global Gender Gap Report.[4][3] In their 2013 study, Branisa et al. explain that indices like the Global Gender Gap Index tend to be "outcome-focused", which means they focus on gender inequalities in agency and in well-being.[5] Indices like the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) focus on the origins of gender inequalities, such as laws and norms.[5] South Korea is one of three OECD countries that did not receive a perfect SIGI score.[5] While the SIGI did not give South Korea an overall ranking, the country was reported to have very low levels of discriminatory family code, low levels of restricted civil liberties, and medium levels of restricted resources and assets.[6]

In 2010, 93% of South Koreans surveyed believed women should have equal rights to men, and among them, 71% believe more changes are needed before that goal is achieved.[7]

South Korea's Subindices Rankings in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report[3]
Subindex Rank

(out of 144 countries)


(0 = imparity, 1 = parity)

Average Score
Economic Participation and Opportunity 121 0.533 0.585
Educational Attainment 105 0.960 0.953
Health and Survival 84 0.973 0.956
Political Empowerment 90 0.134 0.227

The 2017 report notes that all subindices (health and survival, education, economic participation and equality, and political empowerment) show improvement compared to 2006 (the date of the first publication of this yearly report).[3] In comparison to other countries, South Korea scores highest on Health and Survival (84th), then Political Empowerment (90th), then Educational Attainment (105th), and ranks the lowest on Economic Participation and Equality (121st).[3]

South Korea's Female to Male Ratios in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report[3]
Indicators South Korea's Female to Male Ratio Average Female to Male Ratio
Wage equality for similar work 0.51 0.634
Estimated earned income 0.45 0.509
Legislators, senior officials and managers 0.12 0.320
Enrollment in tertiary education 0.77 0.938
Women in parliament 0.20 0.205
Women in ministerial positions 0.10 0.100
Years with female head of state (last 50) 0.10 0.104


"Gender inequality" in South Korea has been perpetuated and deepened by historical practices and events, such as military sexual slavery and Park Geun-Hye's scandal.[8][9] However, contemporary South Korea has made great strides in attempting to reduce gender inequality through legislation and policymaking.[10]

Korean comfort women interrogated by sergeants in the U.S. Army in 1944
Korean comfort women interrogated by sergeants in the U.S. Army in 1944

Military Sexual Slavery[edit]

Throughout modern history, South Korean women have been subjected to military sexual slavery.[11] During World War II, thousands of young Korean women were forced to become "comfort women" for the Japanese Imperial Army.[11][12] During the Korean War, the United States enlisted more than one million South Korean women into military prostitution.[11][13] According to the Journal of Korean Studies authors Han and Chu, "military establishments have depended upon and justified the systematic discrimination of women by promoting gendered notions of femininity and masculinity, weakness and strength, conquered and conqueror."[11] Han and Chu believe that military sexual slavery has contributed to the patriarchal ideologies that perpetuate gender inequality in South Korea.[11]


After the democratization of Korea, the number of feminist movements greatly increased.[14][15] The Korean government began to address gender equality issues in the late 20th century with the following legislative acts:[10]

  • Sexual Equality Employment Act (1987)[14]
  • Act on Equal Employment and Reconciliation of Work and Family (1989)[16]
  • Mother-Child Welfare Act (1991)[17]
  • Punishment of Sexual Violence and Protection of the Victim Act (1993)[17]
  • Women’s Development Act (1995)[17]
  • Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of the Victim Act (1997)[17]

In 2005, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family was established and the patrilineal family register (hoju) was abolished.[14][11] While gender equality in policymaking and governance has improved over the last few decades, gender equality in labor markets and the division of labor has remained stagnant.[18][11]

Park Geun-Hye
Park Geun-Hye

Park Geun-Hye[edit]

Although women gained the rights to vote and run for election in 1948, women have historically been underrepresented in South Korean politics.[19][20][21] When Park Geun-Hye became South Korea's first female president in 2012, many viewed her election as a victory for gender equality in South Korea.[9][22] Four years later, her scandal and impeachment nullified any progress made by her election and left many convinced that women are not fit to lead their country.[9]

Professional Inequality[edit]

The professional inequality in South Korea is atypically high among developed countries.[3][4] This type of inequality can be seen in statistics concerning South Korea's wage gap, employment rates, occupational segregation, and parental leave.

Wage Gap[edit]

In their 2001 article, Monk-Turner and Turner report that "all else equal, men earn from 33.6 percent to 46.9 percent more than women with comparable skills."[23] In 2017, the OECD placed Korea in the last position of all OECD countries for gender pay gap, a position that has not improved since the OECD first published this ranking in 2000.[24][25] The gender pay gap in Korea is 34.6%, while the OECD average is 13.1%.[26] The gap has improved by 7% since 2000, though the rate of improvement has been slower than in other OECD countries.[25] The Korean gender pay gap has been called "the worst... among the industrialized countries."[27] Korea also ranked the lowest on the glass-ceiling index published by The Economist in 2014.[28] The glass-ceiling index was determined by the country's performance on nine indicators such as wage gap, labor force participation, representation in senior jobs, paid maternity leave, etc.[28]


Women tend to occupy low-paying, non-regular jobs and are less likely to be promoted to higher managerial positions in the workplace; however, employment opportunities for women in South Korea have steadily increased in the past few decades.[29] Before the Korean War, the employment rate of women was less than 30%.[30] In their 2018 Economic Survey for Korea, the OECD recorded the female employment rate to be around 56.1%, which is below the average (59.3%) for all OECD countries.[29] The male employment rate is 75.9%, which is slightly higher than the OECD average (74.7%).[29]

In their 2013 paper, Patterson and Walcutt found that gender inequality in the workplace stems from "a lack of legal enforcement, a weak punishment system, a tacit acceptance of the status quo by women, organizational cultural issues stemming from the traditional Korean mind-set that allow gender discrimination and a general lack of knowledge about EO [equal opportunity] regulations by many companies."[31]

In addition to the societal and familial expectations of women to be primary caregivers, the OECD report explains that "women tend to withdraw from the labour force once they have children, in part due to shortages of high quality early childhood education and care institutions."[29][32] During the 1970s and 1980s, women left the workforce at a very "early stage in family formation."[32] Currently, they are leaving the workforce later, usually right before or during their pregnancy.[32] Ma notes that this trend could be due to women's growing financial independence.[32]

Occupational Segregation[edit]

Despite the rising employment rate for women, the labor force in Korea is still highly segregated by gender, marked by full-time employment gender share and industrial differences.[33][34] In 2017, women in Korea made up 39.5% of the full-time employment population, in contrast to the 62.7% gender share in part-time employment.[33] The relatively high part-time employment rate for women can partly be attributed to traditional Confucian ideals of gender roles in Korea, in which women are expected to take on the responsibility of family duties and childcare.[34] Part-time employment allows for reconciliation of professional and family life, especially for women, as explained in a 2002 OECD Employment Outlook analysis.[35]

In addition to differences in full- and part-time employment rates, gender inequality in Korea also manifests itself through industrial segregation.[34] In a 1994 article, Monk-Turner and Turner observed that "farming and production absorbed 66.3 percent of all women workers," and "another 29 percent of all women work as clerical, sales, or service workers."[34] In 2017, according to statistics from the International Labour Organization, agricultural sector employment had shrunk to around 5% for both men and women; 82.1% of women workers were concentrated in the service sector, with 11.5% in manufacturing and 1.4% in construction, in contrast to men with 61.9% in services, 20.8% in manufacturing, and 11.2% in construction.[36] In two decades, aside from the national trend of sectoral-shift away from agriculture for both men and women, the female working population remains highly clustered in certain industries, while the same pattern does not seem to apply for men. Furthermore, in the 2018 OECD Economic Survey for Korea, it was observed that within the entrepreneurial sphere, "female entrepreneurs are concentrated in basic livelihood sectors, such as health and social welfare, accommodations and restaurants, other personal services and educational services, reflecting in part their more limited access to financing and their educational background."[37]

Parental Leave[edit]

Although South Korea offers 12 weeks for maternity leave and the longest paid paternity leave among all the OECD countries at 53 weeks, taking the leave is highly unpopular and unofficially discouraged within Korean companies, which forces women out of the workplace following the birth of a child.[18][38][27][39] As a result, working parents - especially mothers - receive relatively little support for child rearing.[29] Public funding for parental leaves as well as the development of childcare programs have slowly gained ground in South Korea, where childcare and its economic sector had predominately been private.[40]

Household Inequality[edit]

A Korean family in the 1800s
A Korean family in the 1800s

Confucian family values support traditional sex roles, with men expected to do "male-type" work and women expected to do "women-type" work.[41][42][8][10] Since males are expected to be the major breadwinners in families, there is a strong cultural tendency to define females' roles as that of a wife, mother, and housekeeper.[2][38][18] In 1998, a Korean Women's Development Institute survey found that majority of South Korean women did all of the housework in their homes.[42]

As a consequence of household inequalities, South Korean women are marrying later and having fewer children.[41] A 2007 report by Center for Strategic and International Studies notes these trends are "in many ways the worst of both worlds. Korea now has a lower fertility rate than any developed country and one of the lowest rates of female labor-force participation — 60% for women aged 25 to 54 versus 75% in the USA and 76% in the EU."[41] The percentage of Korean women who say it is “necessary” to have children declined from 90% in 1991 to 58% in 2000.[41] In 1970, the average age of first marriage for females was 23; by 2005 it was almost 28.[41] The report shows that traditional Korean family and workplace cultures must change in order to prevent serious economic and societal problems due to extremely low fertility rates.[41]

Special Opportunity Inequality[edit]

From the 20th century to the modern era, access to tertiary education for women has risen but remains comparably lower than a number of developed countries, particularly those that have a higher proportion of educated women than men.[43] The prevalence of a male-dominated working force, and the stringent parental supervision of children's education made women who pursued tertiary education to view further education as a tool for training children rather than pursuing a career.[30] Although 74.9% of South Korea women (between the ages of 25 and 34) have completed tertiary education - a percentage that is much higher than the OECD average (50.7%) - the employment rate of women with tertiary education is the lowest in the OECD.[44][45]

Within primary and secondary education, greater female participation in STEM fields is being promoted.[46] Tertiary institutions are being pushed to admit more women.[46]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]