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365. The Tilted Scale : Korean Women's Rights

Lee, Yu-jeong, Lee, Jeong-hyun, Jeong, Ye-eun 기자2017.03.03 20:56:47

Discrimination against women has existed continuously since ancient society. Aristotle said that women lack the ability to think rationally compared to men and even Schopenhauer said that women exist only for breeding. Women’s rights movement began in the late 19th century, and are discussed in the movie “Suffragette (2015)”. In Korea, feminism has become a much-debated topic, as books about feminism have become best sellers. Moreover, a lot of laws related to women’s rights have been newly established. It seems that women’s rights have been promoted more than ever and some even say that Korea is now a female-dominated society. However, has Korean society really achieved true gender equality? What is the current status of Korean women’s rights? Let us learn more about this issue from the economic, political, legal, cultural, and sexual perspectives.

 

<Economic Perspective>

Problems of the Gender Wage Gap

When we look at women’s rights from the economic point of view, the wage problem always comes first. For over 10 years, Korea has been ranking overwhelmingly at the top among the OECD countries in terms of the wage gap between men and women. In order to understand this, it is necessary to look at the reasons and the actual data.

According to a survey by CEO SCORE (Management Information System Company) in 2015, the wage gap between men and women was about 26 million won a year. This means, on average, that a male employee receives about 2.2 million won a month more than a female employee. The result of the survey has been continuously controversial. Some people said that the gap was unavoidable because of different workloads and duties of men and women.

So, what are the main causes of the gender wage gap? First, the years of service of male and female employees were different. According to research by CEO SCORE, males worked for an average of 12.6 years and females for 7.5. Wage differentials between men and women also varied by the type of industry. There is a large wage gap in the financial institutions but a comparatively smaller gap in the service and pharmaceutical fields. Kim, Sang-kyung, who is a member of Women’s Financial Network, said that more than 80% of women in the banking sector are engaged in personal financing, that is, branches, and most of the main jobs in the headquarters are occupied by men. She said this fact can be the main cause of the wage gap.

Some male workers say the wage gap is justifiable because men actually have a heavier workload and make a higher contribution to the company than women do. However, according to the research about the major causes of the gender wage gap, carried out by the Ministry of Labor, women receive less than their productivity merits, simply because they are women. This was the largest factor, beating the difference in years of service, the male premium, the workload, and the contribution to the company. Thus, it is a fact that women are still discriminated economically in Korean society, just because they are women.

 

‘Glass Ceiling’ and ‘Glass Wall’

‘Glass ceiling’ is an expression which was coined during the 1970s women’s rights movement in the U.S. The glass ceiling describes an invisible barrier in the workplace that prevents women from entering senior positions. Being made of glass, it looks like there is no ceiling, but in fact, it does exist. According to research about the world glass ceiling index by The Economist in the UK, Korea ranked the lowest. This means that women cannot go up to higher positions. Therefore, it seems clear that the glass ceiling in Korea is very solid.

There is another expression called ‘glass wall’, which refers to the phenomenon of sex segregation in which women are placed only in occupations such as paraprofessionals, counselors, and human relationships, which are traditionally considered to be more suitable for women. Women in these occupations do not even have a chance to discuss the glass ceiling because most of them are not in a permanent position, so there is no possibility of promotion.

 

Women in the Work Place

For women, it is easier to quit work but harder to return to work because of marriage, childbirth and the lack of any system that helps women to work again. However, the large wage gap in Korea cannot be explained by this alone, because Korea is not the only country with a career disruption. Why is the Korea’s wage gap so big? The answer that women receive lower wages just because they are women might seem somewhat absurd. When a woman informs her boss of her pregnancy, many companies pressure them to go on maternity leave and then return to work without having a child-care leave. However, three months of maternity leave may not be enough for them to fully recover after childbirth, and sometimes there is no one to take care of the child. Socially, there is no trustworthy institution to which parents can entrust a child at a reasonable price. In addition, some women cannot afford to have babysitters because of their high salaries. Therefore, all these reasons make women quit their jobs. Nevertheless, the legal system is still insufficient to solve this problem. As a result, the number of female temporary workers is increasing, resulting in the wage gap.

In Goldman Sachs, there is a manual on how to listen and respond to a female employee when she announces that she is pregnant so that she does not feel any psychological pressure. Some Koreans claim that this manual is not necessary, but in Korea, where the glass ceilings are solid, these kinds of small efforts could gradually bring economic equality of men and women.


<Political and Legal Perspective>

Women in the Korean National Assembly

In April 2016, the number of female congressperson elected in the 20th general election was the largest in Korean history. Among the 300 lawmakers, 51 were women, accounting for 17%. However, this percentage is still below the average in Asia which is 18.5%, and 25 of the 51 women were elected by proportional representation. Some say another problem is that Korean female politicians are indifferent to women’s issues. Kang, Ju-hyun, a professor of political science at Sookmyung Women’s University, emphasized this problem, saying that “In nations such as the United States, where the proportion of female politicians is much higher than that of Korea, female lawmakers and senior officials actively discuss women’s issues and highlight their grievances.” Women’s rights in the U.S. seems to be much better than in Korea. But still, American female politicians talk about feminism a great deal. In comparison, Korean female politicians rarely discuss the issue. From some points of view, this is understandable, because there are fewer female legislators and it is harder to talk about feminism in Korean society. However, because Korean women have a lower social position, lawmakers need to be much more active in discussing their issues.

The patriarchal notion that ‘politics is a men’s domain still exists in our society. It has been pointed out that change of perception and improvement of the system are necessary in order to achieve gender equality in the Korean congress. Baek, Hye-ryun (a Minjoo Party congressperson) said, “It is important to recognize women as politicians who can play an important role, not just to obey the law.” On the other hand, Shim, Sang-jung (Justice Party representative) said “Increasing the proportion of women in the provincial nominations or in proportional representation would be a shortcut to broadening women’s opportunities for political participation.” It is expected that if women’s participation in politics increases, the laws created by the National Assembly will be able to represent women’s demands better.

 

Abortion, the Ongoing Hot Issue

The Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) pre-announced an amendment to the implementation of the medical law on September 22, 2016. The MOHW defined abortion as immoral medical practice and declared that the MOHW will increase penalties for breaking the law, suspending the license of obstetricians who illegally perform the surgery for up to 12 months. Heated arguments have been going on over the enforcement of this legislation, involving various parties in Korea, women’s groups and the medical circle.

On January 8 2017, one of the women’s groups named ‘Black Wave’ staged a protest against the amendment. Most of the women’s groups claim the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. In addition, they criticize the government’s male-dominated perspective which places the responsibility for pregnancy and childbirth on women, without respecting their rights. Furthermore, they insisted on governmental support for single mothers and pregnant women. Some of them even wore radiation protective clothes, saying that “Without having the right to terminate pregnancy, the fear of being pregnant can be more severe than radiation.” They also declared that they would not have sex until the amendment is abolished, crying “No rights, no sex”.

In the case of the medical circle, it claimed that it would refuse to operate all abortions, including both legal and illegal ones. This is because it is difficult to draw the line between legal and illegal abortion, and the doctors want to avoid punishment. Under the current law, the legal operation of abortion includes the following cases: the woman or her partner has physical or mental illness; the woman is pregnant by incest or rape; and the pregnancy can be considered to severely damage the health of the woman. The Korean Medical Association (KMA) said that these standards of deciding whether which case is legal or not is too vague. For example, in the case of a rape victim who finds it difficult to prove that she has been raped, operating can be risky. Furthermore, the KMA has insisted that defining abortion as ‘immoral’ is a hasty conclusion, because there are some cases where abortion is needed in addition to the cases listed in the amendment. The KMA warned that if the issue of abortion is regulated without considering various situations, it could increase the number of non-practitioner operations, which could be dangerous for the women’s health. As you can see from this situation, there seems to be quite a distance between the law and reality.

In the matter of regarding the right of the fetus, some people also express doubt about the abortion video which is used as class material during sex education. In the video, the fetus seems to move away from the medical equipment during the abortion. The reason for showing this video to the students was to arouse sympathetic feelings about the pain of the fetus. However, according to a neurologist, a fetus less than 24 weeks old cannot feel pain, so the movement of the embryo is no less than an automatic reflex.

Being confronted by massive opposition, the MOHW’s amendment increasing doctors’ penalties was invalidated in Korea, but there are still heated arguments surrounding abortion. All these arguments are about deciding where to place greater emphasis: the right of the woman or the life of the baby. Although the perspectives about the answer can greatly vary, the effort to protect both rights should be of paramount concern. Moreover, social discussion in which the opinions of various organizations and individuals are freely shared is a must.

 

<Cultural Perspective>

Tide of Misogyny: Why Is It So High?

There has been a tide of misogyny sweeping Korea, so pervasive that it has spawned many words that express hatred toward women. Some examples include kimchinyeo, doenjangnyeo, which usually degrade women who indulge in luxury depending on men’s wealth. Another example is Kimyeosa, which is used to make fun of women who are bad drivers. Some people, even women, say that these types of people deserve to be criticized. The problem is, these hate phrases are used not because the targeted women really have those tendencies, but just because they are women. It is quite surprising that this kind of blind aversion towards a gender is prevalent in Korea, becoming a cultural phenomenon.

There are several explanations about this issue. First, some say that it derives from a patriarchy that is deeply rooted in Korea. Some males do not want to give up that privilege, thinking that women who claim gender equality are trying to deprive them of their own privileges. Other males think, even in these days, that they have to take on the traditional role, performing actions such as supporting a whole family only with the man’s income. Second, the male’s compulsory military service is also one of the causes. As men perform military duties, they feel cut off from women of their age and it causes a sense of inferiority, in that men waste almost 2 years, the regular period taken for performing military duties, while women can do what they want during that period. Lastly, some people handle misogyny from a perspective of the strong oppressing the weak. In this situation, hatred is inflicted on those in a low position in society, and the extent of this hatred tends to increase when the country is going through an economic crisis. In most countries where foreigners account for a large amount of its population, the object of hatred is usually the foreigners. However, in Korea, the ratio of foreigners is only 3.4%, according to a survey conducted by Statistics Korea in 2015. Since there are not enough people from overseas, the haters pick the next easiest target: women.

To resolve the conflict between genders, a change of perception on the part of individuals, as well as a change in social regulations and structure is needed. People have to make the effort to overcome patriarchy and the fixed idea of a vertical relationship between men and women. Social regulations regarding gender hatred have to be made, and the government should try to form a social atmosphere in which both men and women can equally receive benefits and take on responsibilities.

 

Working Couple, Not Sharing Housework?

Recently, a research by Statistics Korea received great attention. This is because the ratio of sharing housework in Korea turned out to be near the lowest among OECD countries. The study surveyed couples whose ages ranged from 30 to over 60. The survey consisted of three kinds of domestic labor: cooking; doing the laundry; and taking care of ill family members. The proportion of Korean couples who said that they share domestic labor equally accounted for 9.3%, 8.8%, and 31% respectively. Each of these figures was the second or third lowest after that of Taiwan and Japan, while the figures of Northern Europe were the highest.

Many Koreans were shocked at this result, but at the same time some refuters said that the range of chores selected was too narrow and the study did not consider that the extent of Korean women’s entry into society is low compared to Northern Europe. The refuters continually stressed that the number of working couples increases as their age gets younger, and so does the ratio of housework division. In fact, a study about the proportion of working couples supported this counterargument to some degree. The ratio in developed countries such as England, the US, and Finland was over 60% and the average in OECD countries was 57%, while that of Korea was 43%. However, the statistics by age did not support those objections at all. The proportion of young couples in their 30s who equally divide housework did not differ from that of couples over 50 and 60, or it was even lower

There is some explanation about why people’s thoughts differ from reality. Han, Kyeong-hye, the conductor of this research, explained that the developing pace of perception and actual behavior does not match and the latter cannot keep up with the former. That is, the number of people who ‘think’ they should divide housework equally has increased, but there are few people who really ‘do share’ roles. Although statistics regarding gender equality in Korea cannot be hastily interpreted without considering social and economic differences of each nation, it seems clear that an effort to reduce the gap between perception and behavior is essential.

 

<Sexual Perspective>

Sexual Violence Prevention Classes: Say No to Rapist?

For many years, in sex education classes, teachers have been telling elementary school students to say ‘no’ when someone is trying to rape them. This way of teaching has been facing criticism because rapists will not care if kids say no or not, and because it is focused on teaching how not to be raped, not on teaching not to rape. Instead of current sexual violence prevention classes, we should teach students the importance of mutual consent in sexual intercourse, definition of date rape, and the fact that rape could happen between a married couple if one of them does not agree to have sex.

Perception of Sexual Violence Victims: Are Victims Responsible?

Many victims of sexual violence suffer from a negative perception of themselves. For example, sometimes they are told that they were raped because they were wearing a revealing outfit, because they were too drunk, or they were simply asking for it. One might think that only a small amount of people would believe this, and that most of Koreans would not think badly about the victims. However, according to a 2013 Survey Study on Sexual Violence, conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, it seems that quite a lot of Koreans blame rape victims, not the rapist. In the survey, when Korean men and women were asked “If the woman was drunk while she was being raped, she is also responsible,” 44.8% said yes. In addition, 32.3% thought that “If a woman had kept resisting, it would have been impossible to rape her.” Even when asked whether “Raped woman should feel guilty about being raped”, 21% said yes. These negative images of sexual violence victims add up to one of the reasons why there are so many women who hide the fact that they were raped. According to the same survey, only 6.6% of women called the police after being raped or after an attempted rape.

 

Sexual Oppression Against Women

Korea is famous for its conservativeness in terms of sexual activity because of its strong Confucian culture. Many Koreans consider sexual activity as a taboo topic and think it is vulgar to talk about it. As a result, everyone is under certain amount of pressure when pursuing sexual gratification. Furthermore, many Korean women feel that they are not respected as beings who can make their own choices on what to do with their bodies. In a very conservative city, some parents do not let their daughters study in other cities like Seoul. If this is because of financial reasons then it would be understandable, but in some rare cases parents say this is because they do not want their daughters to have premarital sex so they want to keep them under the same roof. Some parents say this straightforwardly and some say it ambiguously, but they have the same underlying thought.

 

What is Feminism and Who are Feminists?

Roxane Gay, the author of the bestselling book Bad Feminist, has talked about the negative images of feminists in her speech in TED. She confessed that when she was younger, she had strange images of feminists as hairy, angry and man-hating women. She said she was worried about the negative tone people use when they think she might be a feminist. The term was a label for women who do not follow the rules, who expect too much, and who think too highly of themselves by daring to believe they are equal or superior to men. However, as she got older, she began to accept that she is a feminist, and she remarked that she cannot imagine being anything else right now. As a feminist, she believes that women deserve equal payment for equal work, and have the right to be free from any harassment or violence. She claims as a woman’s right easy and affordable access to birth control and reproductive services, and the right to make choices about her body, free from legislative oversight or evangelical dogmatism.

Furthermore, according to the definition of Ueno, Chizuko, men and women can be feminists whether they have patriarchal aspects or not. She says, in her book called Woman-Haters: Misogyny in Japan, feminists are people who realize that there is something wrong with this patriarchal society, and who try to escape from it even though they sometimes notice that they do have some patriarchal qualities themselves. This is because patriarchy is deeply ingrained in our society and nobody cannot completely avoid being influenced by it.

Patriarchy sees a woman just as an angel in a house or a flower in a vase. It defines what women should do, and what men should do. It limits women’s range of activity to the house, and allows men to take advantage of this, but requires men to take on huge responsibility. Thus, trying to escape from patriarchy could help both men and women.

 

Conclusion

Discrimination against women may have started even before human beings began to build their civilization, and it has continued up to now. This signifies that the wall called misogyny has been built and intensified for a vast amount of time, and that it has been normalized and habituated. This might be the reason why Emily Davison decided to cause an enormous sensation by throwing herself in the racetrack in 1913. Her suicide was a scream behind the invisible and solid glass wall, trying to break it. In western societies, feminists have been struggling for better treatment of women for over 100 years, but our society has not yet accomplished true gender equality. As you can see from this, gender equality achievement in Korea will be difficult and time-consuming, and it will be hard to enhance women’s rights right away despite the amount of effort we will need to devote to them. However, the reason why we put our efforts into the feminism movement is that feminists are people who strive to see a woman as an individual, not just as a mother, a womb which will bear children, a sex worker, or a sexual object. This is because regarding one person as an “equal human being” not just as a black person, a woman, or a disabled person is the true value we need to pursue in the society we live in right now.

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