Korean Sociological Image #73: The True Numbers of Korean Working Women

(Source; edited)

If recent BBC coverage is anything to go by, marriage in South Korea is like a business. It’s also becoming a bit of an explosive topic as social mobility slows down and the traditional image of the male breadwinner becomes eroded by the increasing participation of females in the labour market. Some of the most widely publicised scandals and controversies on the Korean internet seem to have been, in some way or another, due to this intensifying gender friction.

(KoreaBANG; my emphasis)

My apologies for singling out Justin at KoreaBANG, whose post is still excellent overall. And as you’ll soon see, I often make mistakes too.

But that comment I’ve highlighted? Frankly, it just infuriated me. Because even though it’s completely wrong, I seem to hear it all the time these days.

In reality, the Korean female workforce participation rate has stagnated at one of the lowest rates in the OECD ever since 1997-98, when women were overwhelmingly targeted for layoffs during the Asian Financial Crisis. Back then, the logic was that wives would be provided for by their husbands, and 20-something daughters by their fathers. And 10 years later, in the latest crisis, to a large extent this logic was reapplied, although on this occasion there was a clearer economic – not just patriarchal – logic in that women formed the bulk of irregular workers (see here, here, and here for much more information).

Or so I’ve often written. But naturally, it was difficult to find definitive statistics on that when I first reported on it three years ago. At that time, my most up to date source was my copy of Working Korea 2007, published by the Korea Labor & Society Institute. Here is my scan of page 19, which has a graph of the male and female workforce participation rate of 1970-2006:

In hindsight, although it does show a big drop in the female rate in 1997-98, it shows an equally large (even slightly larger?) drop in the male rate too. With my apologies, I’m very surprised I didn’t notice that earlier, and, although it does contradict most of the literature I’ve read about the Asian Financial Crisis, and is just from one source too, it still definitely bears further investigation.

That aside, a year later I found a source going up to 2008 (it shows a fall of 50.3% to 50.0% in 2006-2008; see below also). And today, spurred by Justin’s comment, I tried looking again, and found the following at the National Statistics Office’s website:

(Source)

The blue bars represent the economically active female population, in thousands (i.e., the first figure is 10.75 million), the pink line the female workforce participation rate. Although the choice of right scale gives the false visual impression that the rate has changed a great deal, as you can see from the numbers it has remained within a narrow band of 49% to 50.5%, last year’s rate being just lower than that of 2002. Also, clearly a 0.9% drop between 2008 and 2009 isn’t quite as big as I’ve been making out, and again is something that bears further exploration.

But still, one thing is clear: the number — well, percentage — of Korean women working has little changed in the last 15 years, and remains very very low by the standards of other developed countries. So it can not be the cause of increasing gender friction.

The perception that Korean women are making significant inroads into the Korean economy though? That’s entirely possible, and indeed I highly recommend KoreaBANG for much more on that (indeed, especially the remainder of Justin’s post), as well as many posts by Gord Sellar too (source, right).

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)

6 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #73: The True Numbers of Korean Working Women

  1. What I’ve noticed in recent years is an increasing social panic about the dethronement of the male breadwinner; the funny thing about social panics is that a phenomenon doesn’t have to be real in order for a society to be thrown into panic over it. (Just look at the panic in Korea over white expatriate male sexuality, or, similarly, the social panic over black male sexuality in America in the past, and to perhaps a lesser degree today.)

    I’ve seen male students but also, distressingly, female college students saying things that reflect a growing belief that women are tipping the scales of balance in Korea–that is, that they’re subjugating men, an imbalance that is unfair to men and which needs to be rectified. Seriously.

    The simplest explanation would be that women are serving as the scapegoats for men on the lower end of the growing income gap who, finding themselves still unable to find better employment even after the economy has technically recovered from 1997 (which it has; it’s just that the old corporate job-for-life system hasn’t come back, and won’t be anytime soon), are complaining about women “taking all the good jobs” the way people in other societies complain about immigrants doing so… even though many of them likely wouldn’t be considered for those “good jobs” even if women were not among their competition.

    Of course, the simplest explanation isn’t always the right one, but it seems right from where I’m standing. And the whole 된장녀 freakout of a few years ago seems to have been the first stages of that resentment finding clear and public expression as a social meme. (And not coincidentally, there’s been a profusion of neologisms focused on (a) womens’ bodies, and (b) on infantilized (ie. patently defanged) women as objects of attraction and fascination–like the girl groups targeted at older men, and the meme of the “Bagel Nyeo.”

    But then again, sometimes a resurgence looks like a rise when you don’t know the past well enough, and I don’t know pop culture from the 90s and 80s here well enough to say what I see in terms of that. (And, also, male entertainers seem similarly “defanged” from where I’m standing, though that may be more about differentiating them from the generation before them. I’m not sure, though that feels like pre-emasculation, and these days the trendy female iconography seems to be centered on what we call the female-specific version of that same kind of defanging.)

    Lastly, though, I think when you’re looking at social panics, it may be less fruitful to look at those blue bars and more fruitful to run a little syntactic analysis on the Korean internet. I’d imagine that blog postings, as well as the scripts of TV shows and movies, probably yield a lot of verbiage confirming the idea of a perceived rise in women’s employment. Hell, it’d be interesting (for someone who likes Korean TV dramas, ie. not me) to tabulate amounts of screen time for powerful and well-employed women in the ten most watched dramas for each year in the last few, or the last decade. I betcha we’d see a rise that matches the dialog online, and the dialog out on the street as well.

    (Certainly with young adults in classrooms, entertainment programming shapes the national discussion of things a lot. Many people seem not to think about issues like capital punishment, the sexual abuse of mentally handicapped children, women engaging in conspicuous consumption, the Goose Dad phenomenon, and the status of homosexuals in Korean society unless or until it ends up being a major theme in a successful film or TV show, and I see the same pattern in online discussions with people a little older; I’m doubtful that people a decade older are much different, and that covers most of the population out there who are actually discussing such things online at all.)

    • What I’ve noticed in recent years is an increasing social panic about the dethronement of the male breadwinner; the funny thing about social panics is that a phenomenon doesn’t have to be real in order for a society to be thrown into panic over it. (Just look at the panic in Korea over white expatriate male sexuality, or, similarly, the social panic over black male sexuality in America in the past, and to perhaps a lesser degree today.)

      Another good example that comes to mind is the “spate” of sex-crimes against children that started in the summer of 2010, whereas in reality the numbers were the same they had been in years, as Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling pointed out. In that case though, at least the phenomenon was – and remains – real, and although there have certainly been many knee-jerk reactions, such as the forbidding of all men – yes, fathers too – from entering (some) school grounds, it did at least bring much needed attention on the subject. In particular, it’s done a lot to challenge the prevalent media narratives of platonic “uncle fandom” of underage girl-groups that allowed their exploitation and objectification to occur, culminating in these recent law changes.

      Not that those laws aren’t a little problematic of course, but that’s another story. Or, of course, that you aren’t already well aware of the above…am just saying.

      I’ve seen male students but also, distressingly, female college students saying things that reflect a growing belief that women are tipping the scales of balance in Korea–that is, that they’re subjugating men, an imbalance that is unfair to men and which needs to be rectified. Seriously.

      Really? Jeez, although I shouldn’t be surprised. Echoing what you say later, it would be very useful to explore blogs, forums, and internet sites etc. to get some “hard” evidence on that, although I imagine the actual process of doing so would be unbearably tedious. But still, there’s definitely scope for a paper in that…

      The simplest explanation would be that women are serving as the scapegoats for men on the lower end of the growing income gap who, finding themselves still unable to find better employment even after the economy has technically recovered from 1997 (which it has; it’s just that the old corporate job-for-life system hasn’t come back, and won’t be anytime soon), are complaining about women “taking all the good jobs” the way people in other societies complain about immigrants doing so… even though many of them likely wouldn’t be considered for those “good jobs” even if women were not among their competition.

      Indeed. But I’ll cover that more specifically in my reply to Justin below.

      Of course, the simplest explanation isn’t always the right one, but it seems right from where I’m standing. And the whole 된장녀 freakout of a few years ago seems to have been the first stages of that resentment finding clear and public expression as a social meme. (And not coincidentally, there’s been a profusion of neologisms focused on (a) womens’ bodies, and (b) on infantilized (ie. patently defanged) women as objects of attraction and fascination–like the girl groups targeted at older men, and the meme of the “Bagel Nyeo.”

      You (and Justin) have just helped me clear up a problem in a magazine article on Korea’s body labeling craze I’m working on: specifically, why that arose with a vengeance in the 2000s. Because the explosion of the K-pop industry (with all the ensuing objectification within the industry, and overwhelming financial reliance on endorsements outside of it) seemed insufficient, and a little out with the timing too. As also did simple competition between companies, which presumably occurred before the 2000s too (although some Korean labels for women do originate from the 1990s; “Missy” for example), although changes in the Korean economy in the last decade may have played a role too. (And as part of my research, I’ve discovered minor parallels in the US and Europe and so on, especially with corset manufacturers in the 1930s and 1940s, competing against each other and also increasingly popular lingerie manufacturers.)

      *Update: While rereading that before posting it (seriously, this comment was a bitch to type in MS Word then transfer over!), I realized there is one very very important difference: as discussed in depth by Laura Nelson in Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea (2000), the 1990s were marked by increasing consumerism but also increased backlashes against it, culminating in, of course, the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis. I’d be darned if I can think of any moment in the last 10 years though, when government and business haven’t actively celebrated and encouraged it, especially – again – once the 2nd K-pop wave of Hallyu took off.

      Then I finally began reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1991), the gist of the chapters I’ve read so far being (I think: on my smartphone on the subway isn’t the best place to take notes!) that in Western countries a (re)new(ed) focus on women’s appearance from the ‘80s was/is part of a backlash and challenge to women entering the workforce in large numbers. Now, I’d dismissed that in the Korean case for the obvious reasons (well, reason) I state in the post, but, if you shift your attention to part-time and irregular workers rather than the overall workforce participation rate, then it appears more applicable than ever.

      Of course, correlation is not causation. But it looks like Wolf was onto something 21 years ago (regardless of what we think of her latest Vagina!), and practically speaking that does solve all my problems are how to pull all the disparate threads in my article together.

      But then again, sometimes a resurgence looks like a rise when you don’t know the past well enough, and I don’t know pop culture from the 90s and 80s here well enough to say what I see in terms of that. (And, also, male entertainers seem similarly “defanged” from where I’m standing, though that may be more about differentiating them from the generation before them. I’m not sure, though that feels like pre-emasculation, and these days the trendy female iconography seems to be centered on what we call the female-specific version of that same kind of defanging.)

      Lastly, though, I think when you’re looking at social panics, it may be less fruitful to look at those blue bars and more fruitful to run a little syntactic analysis on the Korean internet. I’d imagine that blog postings, as well as the scripts of TV shows and movies, probably yield a lot of verbiage confirming the idea of a perceived rise in women’s employment. Hell, it’d be interesting (for someone who likes Korean TV dramas, ie. not me) to tabulate amounts of screen time for powerful and well-employed women in the ten most watched dramas for each year in the last few, or the last decade. I betcha we’d see a rise that matches the dialog online, and the dialog out on the street as well.

      I agree, and indeed (in addition to the childish behavior) that’s one of the major reasons why I’m usually turning off dramas within 5 minutes of watching them. Not that popular-culture can’t be aspirational of course, even to an Anglo like myself who was raised in an environment where soaps tended more towards realism than glitzy lifestyles, but somehow I don’t think most Korea drama writers have inspiring female role models in mind.

      Having said that, I recently added an article to my bulging “to translate” folder that seems (from my rough scan) to say that men and women tend to have very stereotypical gender roles in dramas. Not that it offers any statistics to back that up, but maybe you and I are a little guilty of confirmation bias?

      (Certainly with young adults in classrooms, entertainment programming shapes the national discussion of things a lot. Many people seem not to think about issues like capital punishment, the sexual abuse of mentally handicapped children, women engaging in conspicuous consumption, the Goose Dad phenomenon, and the status of homosexuals in Korean society unless or until it ends up being a major theme in a successful film or TV show, and I see the same pattern in online discussions with people a little older; I’m doubtful that people a decade older are much different, and that covers most of the population out there who are actually discussing such things online at all.)

      • Another good example that comes to mind is the “spate” of sex-crimes against children that started in the summer of 2010, whereas in reality the numbers were the same they had been in years, as Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling pointed out. In that case though, at least the phenomenon was – and remains – real, and although there have certainly been many knee-jerk reactions, such as the forbidding of allmen – yes, fathers too – from entering (some) school grounds for instance, it did at least bring much needed light on the subject. In particular, it’s done much to challenge the prevalent media narratives of platonic “uncle fandom” of underage girl-groups that allowed their exploitation and objectification to occur, culminating in these recent law changes.

        Well, and this is something we see in most cultures, the shock and horror of a longstanding but long-unacknowledged problem hitting the mainstream consciousness. Some reaction, some overreaction, and a partial (if incomplete, and sometimes ineffective) attempt to deal with the “new” problem. In fact, the ongoing discovery of bullying in American schools is a good example from the Anglophone world. Bullying has always existed, but the use of social networks in bullying has propelled it into the public eye and, in the US, the national discussion, as if it is a new phenomenon.

        I’ve seen male students but also, distressingly, female college students saying things that reflect a growing belief that women are tipping the scales of balance in Korea–that is, that they’re subjugating men, an imbalance that is unfair to men and which needs to be rectified. Seriously.

        Really? Jeez, although I shouldn’t be surprised.

        Don’t get me wrong, there’s a contingent of women who call bullshit on that, and more who are, well, let’s be charitable and say they’re neutral on it. But yeah, I’ve seen young women–including those, ahem, “free-spirited” enough to be public smokers, or to argue that homosexuals deserve equal rights and respect in Korean society–argue that women are now gaining too much unequal power in Korean society, and call for this “unfairness” to be redressed. And the rhetoric sounds like it’s right off the web.

        Echoing what you say later, it would be very useful to explore blogs, forums, and internet sites etc. to get some “hard” evidence on that, although I imagine the actual process of doing so would be unbearably tedious. Anyway, you’ve given me an idea for a paper this winter…

        Would love to see the results. I had an online acquaintance who was already doing this (in a marketable way, search “Opion” on the page linked) when I first thought up the idea myself… he might be able to offer some advice; I know such things are automatable, though the K-net might pose some specific challenges to data-set gathering.

        By the way, isn’t “Missy” an imported term, though? I have a friend who was being called that in Hong Kong back in the late 90s.

        Of course, correlation is not causation. But it looks like Wolf was onto something 21 years ago (regardless of what we think of her latest, Vagina), and practically speaking solves all my problems are how to pull all the disparate threads in my article together.

        That’s handy.

        I agree, and indeed (in addition to the childish behavior) that’s one of the major reasons why I’m usually turning off dramas within 5 minutes of watching them. Not that popular-culture can’t be aspirational of course, even to an Anglo like myself who was raised in an environment where soaps tended more towards realism than glitzy lifestyles, but somehow I don’t think most Korea drama writers have inspiring female role models in mind.

        Well, but I can say this: massive numbers of my (mostly female) students have a strong interest in dramas from the States, probably for the same reason you turn off Korean ones. I, too, lack the stomach for them. But I’ve also noted a backlash against that: other students (male or female) decrying an overly-strong interest in non-Korean TV programs. Indeed, it was one of the prime “transgressions” of the Dwenjang Nyeo.

        Having said that, I recently added an article to my bulging “to translate” folder that seems (from my rough scan) to say that men and women tend to have very stereotypical gender roles in dramas. Not that it offers any statistics to back that up, but maybe you and I are a little guilty of confirmation bias?

        Ah, but women can still have good jobs and play traditional gender roles, depending on how you define each. In Korea, the number of doctors who are women is on the rise, and has been for years… and yet, where I read about that specifically, the article noted that the medical profession was also slowly losing its lustre and desirability in Korea (as compared with corporate positions, and so on). The slight decline in status of doctors in Korea was not seen as the cause of women’s increased presence, not directly, but it was argued that there was some kind of connection.

        Perhaps Korean dramas in which work features at all conventionally will feature men and women in positions like doctor; and yet they will at the same time have characters conform, in many ways, to relatively traditional gender roles inasmuch as it is possible within that context. I don’t know, as I’ve seen very little in the way of Korean TV dramas, but this certainly seems within the realm of possibility.

  2. hello hello, justinc_c here.
    Very glad to have come across my name plastered in places other than court summon or parking ticket :)

    Here on a friendly banter and answer the charge of semi-professional negligence – thanks for the quotation in full and I certainly was suggesting that in SoKo the rate of FLP (female labour participation) was increasing as you rightly pointed out. You are right on one account and incorrect the other. I will be very brief since there are huge volume of studies on this in SoKo.

    1) in regular F/T employment the FLP has remained stagnant and saw no growth, as your figures indicate.

    2) however, the fastest growing sector in labour market in SoKo, i.e., flexible temporary p/t, (and dispatch) sector, there was a tremendous growth in female participation, with men quickly catching up.

    http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDcQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fyongkwan.com%2Finclude%2Ffile_download.asp%3Fa_file%3Dwoman_forum.pdf%26path_%3D%2Fdown%2Fdata_room%2F&ei=p7l1UIbIB4TK0QWI6YCQCg&usg=AFQjCNEE0wnAHggu6uwEQItUiA_yVB-ahw&sig2=jFdKET4tHRUDJwFDQHC7cQ

    see page 6 for the figure. in it you will find that in 2002, in temp-p/t sector, 1,864,000 men / 1,649,000 women were employed. by 2011, 2,791,000 men / 3,203,000 women are found in this sector. in percentile this is [M:22.6%/F:42,8%] in 2002 to [M:27.8%/F:42.8%], with the slight decrease in male percentile as of 2007, in addition to leaving out those who’ve gone NEET. pre-2002, there was a huge growth in this sector contributing to the rise of FLP. This came to stand still with men starting to enter this sector in desperate search for jobs.

    This means that starting 2002, men increasingly started to compete against female job seekers for p/t positions (in pg.7 the real growth of p/t jobs at the expense of f/t positions are shown), which continues to this day.

    So unfortunately you are half-correct in suggesting that I was wrong. I was only half-wrong :D
    But the real losers in this are the f/t job seekers in SoKo, I’m ‘fraid.

    Best wishes,
    J

    • Sorry for the “completely wrong” comment, which sounds a little harsh in hindsight. And I did indeed single you out unfairly: but for your very very minor oversight, I couldn’t agree more with your post, so your comment was hardly the most egregious example of the reporting trend I’ve been noticing. Rather, I’m afraid it was the single piece of straw that broke the camel’s back with me sorry, albeit only because of the hay-bales of the stuff already added!

      I should just clear up one misunderstanding though: I actually completely agree that in “the fastest growing sector in labour market in SoKo, i.e., flexible temporary p/t, (and dispatch) sector, there was a tremendous growth in female participation,” and did allude to that in the post with my “And 10 years later, in the latest crisis, to a large extent this logic was reapplied, although on this occasion there was a clearer economic – not just patriarchal – logic in that women formed the bulk of irregular workers,” and mention it further (well, provide more links) in the post of mine in the second link after that. But I should have been much clearer sorry, so I certainly deserve being called out on that, and thanks for passing on the helpful statistics.

  3. hello hello JT

    yahaha, no worries. I don’t take these things personally, on account of my previous life as a prolific hatemailer :D in fact i was quite thankful for having pointed out the glaring misfeed of information.
    no, if anything it has led me to 1) be more careful about what i write; 2) your very interesting and wonderful blog… may draw attention to me students :)

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