South Korean women who get pregnant or wish to marry are often forced out of their jobs

Seoul, June 13: When Moon Su-jong, a web designer at a mid-sized South Korean chaebol, or conglomerate, joined a late-night company booze-up and declined alcohol, her bosses guessed that she was pregnant. (What other reason could there be for not drinking?) Far from congratulating her, they were outraged. They berated her for burdening her colleagues, who would have to shoulder her work in her absence, and asked her when she would quit.

Ms Moon complained to the human-resources manager, who agreed that she was harming the company by getting pregnant. Her boss added that the firm should hire more men. She quit five months later. She left her next employer, too, after her second baby. Her mother-in-law was no longer able to help out with the child care, so Ms Moon went freelance.

 Such experiences are so common in South Korea that they are the subject of a new television drama, “Working Mum, House Daddy”. Its spunky protagonist, Mi-so, struggles to combine long, rigid work hours with child care. She loses out on a promotion to a colleague whose mother-in-law looks after her grandchild (South Koreans call this a “mum lifeline”).

 Women in South Korea find it hard to juggle family and a career. In a poll of 3,000 firms last year, over 80% of private ones said that only one-third of female employees returned to work after maternity leave. Public policy is not the problem. South Korean law requires that private companies offer one year of paid maternity leave. Park Geun-hye, the first woman to lead an East Asian country when she assumed South Korea’s presidency in 2013, has vowed to create 1.7m jobs for women, lift their employment rate by seven percentage points, to 62%, and name and shame companies with too few female employees.
 But many South Koreans are reluctant to accept that women have careers, and firms often fail to accommodate the needs of working mothers. The share of working-age South Korean women who have jobs crept above 50% in 2000, and has risen only five percentage points in the past two decades. The gap between the median earnings of men and women in full-time employment is the worst in the OECD, a group of mostly rich countries (see chart). It has shrunk by just three percentage points in ten years. Working women are paid only 63% of what working men get. The few female bosses in its ten biggest chaebol are all relatives of one of their main shareholding families.

Some South Koreans argue that men need jobs more than women, since they are the chief breadwinners. Man of Korea, a male-rights group, wants to abolish the country’s Ministry of Gender and Family, which it says oppresses men, for example by creating women-only parking spaces.

That South Korea now has men’s-rights groups is a sign that women have made advances—the stubblier sex no longer takes its dominance for granted. As recently as 1990, sex-selective abortions stemming from a Confucian preference for sons meant that 117 boys were born for every 100 girls. Girls often left school and took menial jobs to support their brothers’ education. Now the cultural preference has reversed: more parents say they would prefer daughters, and the sex ratio at birth is normal again. Three-quarters of women go to university, compared with just two-thirds of men.

But the workplace has been slow to adapt, and huge numbers of capable female candidates are being overlooked or sidelined. A survey of human-resources teams by Saramin, a job-seeking portal, found that one-third of firms had rejected female job applicants who were at least as well qualified as the male candidates. One-third of respondents agreed that “only a man could do the job.”

Women have started to fight back. In January an employee at a brewery in the conservative city of Daegu sued her boss for forcing her to resign before her marriage. And foreign firms in South Korea have seen an opportunity. Since female talent is undervalued, it is relatively cheap. A study in 2010 found that foreign multinationals hire lots of South Korean women with degrees, and that this boosts their return on assets.

One way to make it easier for working mothers would be for their husbands to do more at home. Currently South Korean women do 83% of unpaid work; American women do 62%. The law promotes a fairer division of labour: South Korean fathers are entitled to 53 weeks of paid paternity leave—more than any others in the OECD. Yet barely 2% used any of it in 2014. An architect in Seoul (who asked not to be named) took a full year off work so that his wife could pursue her “dream job” in one of the country’s biggest publishing firms, but he is exceptional. (At his wife’s firm, her female colleagues brag about how their contractions started while they were still at their desks.)

Many fathers—64% of male employees surveyed in 2014—said they would share the burden of child care if only it became socially acceptable and financially possible (by law they are paid 40% of their regular wage on leave but, as it is capped at 1m won—$860—a month, they rarely get that much). They know their bosses mean it when they joke that their desks might be gone when they return.

With a fertility rate of around 1.2 babies per woman, South Korea’s labour force is set to shrink dramatically. If the country fails to make use of half its talent pool, stagnation looms. An OECD study estimated that if the labour-force participation rate for men and women was the same by 2030, GDP growth would increase by 0.9 percentage points annually. Since 2010 growth has fallen from 6.5% to 2.6%.

In one episode of “Working Mum, House Daddy”, the office is dumbfounded when Mi-so’s husband comes into work with their second baby strapped to his chest and says he will take leave in her place to avoid her losing her job. The boss is incredulous: “Do you think this will end with you? Once you do this, others will follow!” Maybe they will.

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