South Korean Women "Peer Pressured" Into Passing On Maternity Leave

Illustration for article titled South Korean Women Peer Pressured Into Passing On Maternity Leave

What would force someone to spend $8,600 taking out ads in major newspapers proclaiming "I Am A Bad Woman?" For Hwang Myoung-eun, the full page polemic the only way to vent her frustration as a working mother.

The Washington Post sets the tone for discussing the situation facing working women in South Korea, noting:

In a country where people work more and sleep less than anywhere else in the developed world, women are often elbowed away from rewards in their professional lives. If they have a job, they make 38 percent less money than men, the largest gender gap in the developed world. If they become pregnant, they are pressured at work not to take legally guaranteed maternity leave.

Thanks to gender equality in education, the professional skills and career aspirations of women in South Korea have soared over the past two decades. But those gains are colliding with a corporate culture that often marginalizes mothers at the workplace — or ejects them altogether.


Working mothers like Hwang - who is a high powered executive - face rejection from various aspects of work life after they have children. One of the largest fault lines for professional women is the issue of maternity leave. While the government allows women to take up to one year off (with some compensation) after childbirth, many companies frown upon employees taking advantage of the policy. Many workers have reported losing their jobs after being on leave, though this practice is illegal. Still, the situation is so bad, the statistics speak for themselves:

Only about 35,000 parents in this country of 49 million people took advantage of child-care leave subsidies last year.

Additionally, added societal pressures increase the burdens on working women, who are supposed to still attend every whim of their husband, children, and extended families. If women do not make time for all the demands, they are labeled irresponsible or "bad women." The culture in South Korea has contributed to more and more young women postponing having a family until they are in their late 20s and 30s - but this has provided a new problem for the South Korean government.

Collapsing birthrates are alarming East Asian governments, which in coming years will face a demographic crunch as the proportion of pensioners rises and the number of working-age adults declines. South Korea, which has projected a population decline beginning in 2018, is scrambling to encourage childbirth with incentives including low-interest home loans for families with three or more children.

But for South Korean women, choosing to have children usually means falling off the career track. There is a 30 percent employment gap here between men and women, the fourth-largest gap in the world, after Turkey, Mexico and Greece. Even if women choose to stay on the job, they have no guarantees of career advancement.


While the government can mandate reform, cultural shifts take years to have an impact. Unfortunately, for women like Hwang, this shift just isn't happening fast enough.

As the Times reports today, for some South Korean women, the answer is to head into the public sector - thanks to reforms passed to retain more women in the workplace, women are excelling at various levels in government. (Interestingly, the program to increase the amount of women employees in government offices worked so well that South Korea is debating instituting a similar quota for men.)


With pressures high, South Korean women put off marriage and childbirth [Washington Post]
Blocked in the Private Sector, Korean Women Flock to Government [New York Times]

Earlier: In South Korea, Single Parenthood Is A Radical Choice

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I think the same thing happens to a lesser and more subtle extent in the US. Women may not be fired for taking maternity leave, but plenty of women I know have returned to work after baby to find that they aren't being assigned the same level of work or the plum job assignments they got before, and aren't being promoted on the same timetable. Its as if the higher ups don't have the same faith in a woman's ability to do her job after giving birth, or are afraid the woman won't work as hard as before.