KOREAN WOMEN’S ECONOMIC CONTRIBUTION
In 1972, former President Park Chung-Hee launched an aggressive economic growth plan to skyrocket the nation to a level of modernity on par with other industrialized nations. The former president’s authoritarian measures achieved impressive economic progress. Korean women began participating in the workforce—but at the expense of worse working conditions for women despite their labor contribution.
According to the UN Women, it will take another 286 years to reach global gender equality. The Asia-Pacific region will take 132 years. Unchecked implicit bias and gender stereotyping persist as concerning limitations on one’s potential; and, in turn, the overall progression of the world. The STEM field experiences one of the most significant gender disparities among its workforce, even among more socially progressive nations.
WOMEN IN STEM
Many countries released several initiatives to close the gender gap in STEM: establishing international and national women in STEM associations, youth programs, STEM scholarships for universities, and early introduction of scientific careers to girls in primary and secondary schools. However, few measures succeed in sustaining a gender-inclusive framework that reforms the professional environment of STEM.
The Pew Research Center found in 2018 that while women enroll in STEM-related undergraduate programs, they’re still less likely to attain employment and leadership positions.
Chloe, 24, is enrolled in a Master’s degree program in nanoscience and materials science at a lab in Seoul. She’s the only regular-attending female student and one of the 5 female students out of 17 in her lab.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) 2022 Global Gender Gap Index reported that South Korea ranked 99th out of 146 countries and 12th in the Asia-Pacific region. The previous year surveyed 156 countries, indicating that South Korea lacked improvement. Chloe shares the following on gender-preferred treatment in her lab:
“I don’t know if all labs are like that [gender-preferred treatment], but the older leaders [in my lab] prefer to have male lab leaders.”
Chloe’s experience highlights a common bias in STEM that believes men inherently have a higher aptitude for knowledge and authority in the hard sciences.
KOREAN WOMEN IN STEM
Women’s presence in the labor force doubled (26.8% to 46.7%) amid Park Chung-Hee’s five-year economic plan. In 2019, that number (mainly in the service sector) rose to 60%.
In 2020, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) reported that Korean women’s enrollment rate in education was 71.3%.
Despite the success of these rates, OECD also notes that South Korea has one of the highest gender wage gaps. Korean women make a third less on average than Korean men.
Korean women also face the “Child Penalty”: the decision women must make between having a family and a career.
Chloe shares the shocking advice from her academic advisor:
“My first advisor was a woman, and she [told me to be] clear about my priorities in life. She told me that as a woman, many things require that I prioritize either my family or my dreams. But I think this is the same for any job.”
Korean women still only hold 21% of managerial positions, 5% of executive positions, and 19% of the seats in government.
FEMINISM IN KOREA
Feminists and conversations around gender analysis in Korea are viewed distastefully by many. Some people use the term “femi” (페미 in Korean) as a derogatory dismissal of advocates.
When asked if she experienced any discrimination in her lab, Chloe shared,
“I’ve never experienced discrimination for being a woman, but it’s a spectacle when I hear the stories about my peer researchers. The worst thing I’ve ever heard of was a male leader sexually pursuing a female student, offering financial gains, and eventually using his power to threaten her future when she later tried to expose it.”
Every culture holds specific gender expectations and designates masculine and feminine characteristics with certain objects or actions. These gendered traits also correlate with how people determine their career paths.
“The Global Gender Gap Report” by the World Economic Forum (WEF) states that, on average, men are underrepresented in education, health, and welfare. Is this because women innately suit these positions better? Not likely. It’s because these sectors are feminized and primarily targeted at women.
Conversely, women are underrepresented in STEM. Even within STEM, subgroups such as engineering, technology, and informatics are more masculine-assigned than life sciences such as biology.
Linda Susanne Gottfredson, an American psychologist, coined the term “self-concept”—a four-stage process from ages between 3-14 where children begin identifying social distinctions.
When we gender-stereotype careers, we uphold limitations based only on gender rather than ability and self-interest.
Controversially, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration utilized anti-feminist rhetoric to appeal to a discontented male voter base who wished to weaken (and eventually abolish) the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Commission.
However, acknowledging unfair gender expectations for both men and women will encourage more inclusive conversations about feminism in Korea. Younger generations will become the future they want to see and work together, rather than tearing each other down.
Chloe’s career goals have a brighter future in mind: to set up her own laboratory and create a more open scientific community. A society of empowered citizens makes communities more productive and will produce ingenuity and growth in the world with their craft.
Chloe offers the following advice for women in STEM in Korea and the world:
“Having a great track record doesn’t necessarily make you a good researcher or leader. Be clear about what your research means. Remembering your original intention for research will help you overcome many challenges to come, and if you ask for help, there will be people who will give you warm words. So please don’t be discouraged about the many challenges, and open your heart.”
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