South Korea’s Alpha Women Myth

Recently in South Korea the term ‘alpha girls’ has been used to describe women who are extremely successful in their work, accomplished and ambitious in pursuit of career advancement.

This icon, and the discourse surrounding it, has emerged thanks to the rapid growth in the number of women in high-powered professions that had formerly been dominated by men, including law, medicine and diplomacy. Some commentators have gone so far as to claim that women now occupy a better, higher position in South Korean society than men do.

Not so fast.

South Korea ranks near the bottom among OECD countries when it comes to gender equality. To be sure, there has been progress in rights for women, reflected in the ‘Equal Employment Law’ (1987) and ‘Ban on Gender Discrimination’ (1999). Women’s participation in the labour market has steadily increased over the past few decades, and by 2013 the female labour force participation rate had reached slightly over 50 percent.

Nevertheless, women continue to experience bias in job opportunities and promotion, and there is still a significant wage gap. On average women earned 68 percent of the salary that a man would earn for equivalent work in 2012. Also, the majority of women in the labor market engage in cheap, less-skilled fields as temporary or irregular employees. Only 20 percent of managerial and professional positions are held by women. Despite some progress, there is still a long way to go.

Historically, women in Korean society have been expected to devote their lives to domestic matters and the family. This idea began to change in the late 20th century, especially after the Asian financial crisis in 1997. As many men were laid off during that crisis, there was a fundamental challenge to the concept that the husband was the family’s sole breadwinner. The rapid increase in the cost of living, and in particular the high expense of children’s education, helped to create a new norm in which families needed two incomes in order to afford the basics. The younger generation now takes it for granted that both the husband and wife should work.

The rise of female labour participation should be considered in conjunction with another critical issue facing South Korea, namely the very low birth rate. In 2009, South Korea had the world’s lowest birth rate for the second consecutive year. Policymakers and pundits consider the low birth rate to be the biggest threat to the country’s economy and prosperity.

The decline in the birth rate is related to the lack of social infrastructure and public policies that provide some level of support for women with children. For example, there is no paid maternity leave. A system of childcare is only now starting to be developed. And the culture of many companies is still antagonistic to the concept of maternity leave. A woman who takes leave in order to have a baby may lose her job. As a consequence, women in the labour force tend to have fewer children than women who stay at home.

In the domain of the family, there is a large gap between ideas and practice. More people today accept the idea that married women and mothers will be part of the labour force. Young men nowadays often prefer to marry a career woman than a stay-at-home wife. But women are still expected to take care of most of the housework and childcare with little or no support from men. As a result, women are doubly burdened with both work and household responsibilities. Because of this double burden, women are regarded as less committed to their jobs and less reliable as workers.

This attitude towards women makes them the most dispensable employees. In times of economic downturn, women are often laid off first. This pattern was clearly demonstrated during the 1997 Asian financial crisis as well as the global financial crisis in 2008.

In the face of the steady rise of women in the labor force there are both opportunities and challenges ahead for South Korea. There is a large, highly qualified and exceptionally motivated female labor force. With a very low birth rate, this undervalued female population presents itself as a great pool of human resources.

But the workplace environment women enter poses serious economic and cultural challenges. Female workers are especially vulnerable because they constitute a much larger proportion of irregular workers than men do. This accelerates the marginalization of the female work force, which is already subject to higher poverty rates.

The growing prominence of alpha girls in high-powered workplaces should not distract from the continuing structural and cultural challenges that the vast majority of female workers have to face in an increasingly liberalized labour market.

Hyaeweol Choi is a Professor of Korean Studies and Director of the Korea Institute at the Australian National University. This article appeared originally in the East Asia Forum, published by the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.