Career or Family? Choose One.

Songi - My local translator
Song-i – My local translator

Last weekend, I interviewed eleven Korean women at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea. My Korean language teacher, Song-i, accompanied me as my translator.

I asked the same two questions to the eleven women I spoke with:

What is the biggest challenge or issue for women in South Korea today?

What is the biggest inequality among men and women in the country?

The responses I received varied; however, the top response to both questions was inequality in career opportunities.

In a previous Girls’ Globe article, I included data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012. According to the report, education attainment and healthcare are ranked highly and equally for men and women in South Korea. There is a universal healthcare system in South Korea allowing for relatively equal access to healthcare. In countries where education and healthcare are equitable, usually the other indicators of gender equity, employment and political power, also improve. In South Korea, however, employment and political power remain unequal. After combining all four indicators, South Korea ranked a meager 108 out of 135 countries in gender equity. The results of my survey seem to capture the dilemma of gender inequality in employment in South Korea accurately.


Six out of eleven interviewed women thought the biggest inequality among men and women is in job opportunity and career advancement, and five out of eleven women said that this topic also represented the biggest challenge or issue for women in South Korea. All of the women who spoke about job opportunities said that the challenge was related to the fact that women are expected to stop working when they get married and/or start having children, and, in fact, most women do stop working completely to raise their children. Of the women who do go back to work, most have diminished opportunities for promotions because of the time they spent out of work.

One woman I spoke with is studying to become a doctor, and said that if she chooses a career in medicine she will have more GGFamilyCareerConflict family/career conflicts than a man would have in the same profession. She said the challenge is not the same for men.

Other responses to the question regarding the biggest challenge South Korean women face included: the threat of sexual criminals, viewing illegal abortions as a viable option instead of deciding to be more “responsible”, making sure their children get a good education, and increasing their social status. Some of the women I spoke with believe that current laws are inadequate in addressing sexual crimes in South Korea, and that sexual crimes have increased since people have become more open about sexuality in the country.

Other responses to the question regarding the biggest inequality among men and women included finding space for leisure time and political inequality. A few women I spoke with think that public facilities such as parks and gyms are geared toward men.

Two women responded that there is no inequality among men and women in South Korea, and one of those women suggested that the two year military service requirement for men evens out any employment inequalities faced by women in the country.

My translator, Song-i believes that the biggest inequality is also career opportunity. She said,

Compared to decades ago, many women get higher (job) positions than men. Many women are working and they do have a career and they have money, but after getting married it becomes a problem. Once they get pregnant they need to give up their career. Their company or job never offers benefits for that. That’s the problem. They need to give up several years for giving birth and taking care of their babies and their families. Men never do that in Korea. There are a few, but almost none. I think both parents should take responsibility for their children. It should be fair because they both have their career, but why do women alone give up their career?


The Confucian roots in South Korea are deeply imbedded. Although the Korean society has changed drastically in the past 30 years, these roots still have a strong hold, especially in terms of family values. Confucian society clearly defined roles for men and women, and a woman’s role was in the home.  These values are still in motion today. In August, the South Korean government sponsored a speed-dating event for singles in Seoul as a way to encourage marriage and increase the birth rate. A recent Girls’ Globe article discusses the challenges and stigma that single mothers face in the country.

I think the responses I received from my survey also relate to these deeply imbedded values. The responses regarding abortions, sexual criminals, and sexual openness are a result of the conservative social views held in the country.

The interviews I carried out with these women clearly show that they are concerned about employment inequality. If a women has career aspirations, she usually also faces pressure from her parents and society to make sure family comes first. Women in the United States and other countries face a similar conflict, but it is considered much more of a social faux pas to be unmarried and career oriented if you are a women in Korea. There is an cultural difference.

In a previous post, I documented some of the measures South Korea is taking to close the gender gap. Improvements are happening slowly, but the resiliency of women in South Korea is apparent. The gender gap has improved since 2009 and should increase with continued awareness and global pressure.



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Category: Politics
Tagged with: Asia    Chosun University    Confucianism    Employment Inequality    Ethnography    Forbes Asia's 50 Power Businesswomen    Gender Equality    gender inequality    Gwangju    Korean women    South Korea    Survey    World Economic Forum