The Women’s Issue

Groove May 2014Sorry for the slow posting everyone: I recently had food-poisoning, some editing deadlines and my students’ end of semester exams are looming, and on my days off I’ve been on a mini-whirlwind tour of Korean universities giving presentations about body-image. But I hope to be posting again soon, and, until then, the latest issue of Groove Magazine will easily provide more than enough insights and new information to whet your appetites!

If you can’t get a physical copy, please click on the image above to read it at Issuu (a quick registration is required), or to download a PDF (click on “share” to get the link).

Update: I forgot to mention that I was interviewed for Annie Narae Lee’s article on page 58, but it may not appear online unfortunately. Also, I’m still too busy to listen myself, but Groove’s recent podcast on abortion in Korea sounds useful and interesting.

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 6: What is the REAL reason for the backlash?

Misandry Large 1Misandry Large 2Misandry Large 3(Source: Unknown)

Whenever one group suddenly starts competing with another for jobs, there’s going to be a backlash. That’s just human nature.

Especially if one group has any real or perceived advantages in that competition.

In Korea, the targets are young women, who are exempt from doing two years of military service. They are often made scapegoats for young men’s inability to get work, rather than blaming the government which just reaffirmed that it’s only men that must spend so much time out of the workforce, and/or lose opportunities for further education and gaining extra qualifications. Previously, former conscripts were compensated with extra points when applying for jobs with the government or public organizations, but that policy was ruled unconstitutional in 1999, on the grounds that it was discriminatory. Repeated attempts to reintroduce it have failed.

(To clarify, I’d prefer an end to conscription and the creation of professional armed forces instead, despite the difficulties Taiwan is currently having with that.)

Ironically though, the backlash in much of the 2000s was not due to women taking over “men’s jobs”. In fact, it was the other way round, with a significant number of men losing better paid, advancing, more secure, regular work and being forced to compete for the irregular jobs that were—and still are—primarily done by women. You can see this in following slides I used in my last presentation (see here for the source and a more detailed explanation).

First, here are graphs showing the percentage rates and numbers of all workers (both men and women) doing regular and irregular work over time:

Korea Regular vs. Irregular JobsTo be clear, the above graphs give no indication that it was primarily men that lost those regular jobs, and were forced to take up irregular ones instead. However, unstated is the fact that women with regular work were already targeted for layoffs in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, with the result that they took up irregular work in droves before 2002. So it’s a safe assumption.

What’s more, there’s the next graph, which shows the the percentage rates and numbers of men and women doing irregular work. As women’s rates barely changed, the implication is that the regular jobs men lost weren’t taken over by women:

Korea Irregular Jobs Men vs. WomenWith rates settling in 2004 though, it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the ongoing backlash in 2014 on the shift (although it certainly echoes in popular culture, with today’s freshmen—of both sexes—espousing the negative stereotypes). Today’s generation of young, job-seeking men are much more used to the difficulties of finding regular work, and certainly have no objective reason to fear or resent working women.

Or do they? See my next slide, a screenshot from this Arirang news video:

Korean 20s Economic Participation Rate 2013 ArirangWhat’s more, Yonhap just reported that the gap has continued to widen—in fact, that the crossover occurred as early as 2010. As translated by koreaBANG (my emphases):

The trend in the employment rate of female to male workers in their twenties over the last 4 years has made a historic reversal. Due to so-called ‘female power’, the gap is getting larger.

According to the National Statistics Office’s statements on the 19th, the employment rate of 20-something female workers last year was 57.8%. This is 2.1 percentage points higher than their male counterparts(56.8%)…

…Since 2010, the employment rate of female workers in their twenties has been higher than their male counterparts.

In 2010, the employment rate of female 20-something workers, at 58.3%, surpassed the rate of males by 0.1%. In 2011, the lead increased to 0.4%, and in 2012, as women lead by 1.5%, the gap continues to widen.

The rate of economic participation of female 20-somethings was 62.5% in 2011, then rose to 62.9% in 2012. Conversely, the men went from 64% down to 62.6%, being surpassed by the women for the first time by 0.3%.

The labor market is changing little by little as women obtain higher levels of education and more positions in the workplace.

In every part of society, the female tornado is blowing strong even in specialized careers, and women are making considerable advances.

A gap of 2.1% hardly sounds like a “tornado” of “female power” to me, and much more like natural variation. But I can understand how news of women’s “considerable advances” might rankle, especially in the context of Korea’s lowest twenty-something employment rates since 2000, and the numbers of students deferring graduation nearly doubling in the last two years. It’s not at all difficult to empathize with a male graduate stuck working at (say) a convenience store, frustrated at how some women he went to university have regular jobs because they gained skills and qualifications during the two years he was stuck in the military.

Still, likely that’s not the only reason he’s angry:

Korean Gender Ratio 1981-2012(Source: Cinnamon Ginger Tea; reprinted with permission)

Put simply, most of Korea’s extra boys are now men, and many of them can’t find girlfriends and wives. Most likely, precisely those who lack the steady jobs and money to be considered good partners.

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking, so let’s not mince words. I mean they can’t get laid.

That may sound facetious, and/or that I’m laughing at them. I’m not. Because fourteen years ago, frankly I was in a very similar situation myself. After graduating, I too couldn’t find a good job, and had to work three part-time ones just to scrape by (when my Doc Martins got holes in them, I had to put cardboard in them every day until I could afford new ones; yes, really). Needless to say, I didn’t have much time for dating, and wouldn’t have been very successful if I did.

I felt trapped.

Fortunately, I had the privilege of being able to take up a well-paying job (for a 24 year-old) in Korea, and, desperate in more ways than one, I took advantage of that just six months after graduating. So, while I can definitely empathize with how my students must feel today, on the other hand I can only imagine what it must feel like to never have the option to escape that I had, with no prospect of a partner or steady job for your entire twenties or beyond.

Still, I wasn’t spewing hatred about New Zealand women back in 2000, and likewise most of Korea’s angry young men (or indeed, China and India’s) aren’t destined to be misogynists in 2014 either. Most do direct their anger at the government and chaebol that deserve it.

Unfortunately though, all too many seem to firmly believe in such charming stereotypes as ‘kimchi bitches‘ instead. Moreover, China and India’s own “angry young males” are already considered huge sources of instability, crime, and sexual violence in those countries. Why would Korea’s be any different?

Also, the data raises a simple but important question: do the statistics about twenty-something men and women’s economic participation rates take into account the fact that there’s actually far more twenty-something men than women out there? That while a greater proportion of women than men are working now, that more men than women may still be working overall?

If not, then that “tornado” of “female power” may prove to be nothing more than hot air. Which makes you wonder why the media seems so full of it…

angry-chinese-man(Source: GR × HERMARK, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Either way, of course I’m grossly overgeneralizing in this post, so please feel free to call me out on that, and add any important information I’ve overlooked (I acknowledge I’m no great statistician too, and would appreciate any additional sources of data). But I think these demographic realities do significantly add to the many, often quite legitimate reasons for many young Korean men’s sense of anxiety in post-crisis Korea (which is not to say that things are any rosier for young Korean women), and it’s also fair to say that anxiety seems to be manifesting itself in excessive, distorted, and/or caricatured critiques and stereotypes of women. So at the very least, I hope knowing about all the extra men out there provides some much-needed context to current employment statistics and women-blaming. In hindsight, it’s extraordinary that any discussions of either wouldn’t take them into account.

What have I missed?

Update: Meanwhile, note that Korean women’s overall employment rate remains one of the lowest in the OECD, and that this is one of the main reasons for its equally dismal birthrate. However, as reported by Asian Correspondent yesterday, the Korean government is not about to upset gender norms by making life any easier for working parents. Lest that sound like an exaggeration, recall that the previous Lee Myung-bak Administration also (re)criminalized abortion in order to raise the birthrate, a policy continued by Park Geun-hye (my emphases):

In a nationwide survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries in 2010, marriage was the leading cause for South Korean women to quit their jobs – not childrearing. According to the poll, females in general have a 37.8 percent higher chance to give up work after getting married than if they were single – a percentage that shoots up to 58.2 for those in their 20s. The likelihood, however, of married mothers to leave their jobs was only 2.9 percent higher than married women without children. The federation explains these statistics by saying it is due to the foundational social belief that females should be full-time homemakers…

…Despite these numbers, measures to change cultural expectations – that it is not only the woman’s responsibility to care for children – are being opposed. In January, the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance rejected one of President Park’s campaign promises: mandatory paid paternity leave, or “Father’s Month.” Ministry officials quoted potential financial problems such as the depletion of employment reserve funding for the opposition against the bill. They added that they will work towards a resolution but are unsure how they will initiate it.

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Korean Sociological Image #75: Gender Discrimination in Everyday Korean Language

Korean Gender Discrimination LanguageAs Noface-nameless explains:

Students at Sungkyunkwan University has created this poster, among many others to point out all the gender discrimination happening with common phrases said between friends and colleagues. The centered text in red reads “WHY do we have to listen to these things” / “WHY do we have to deal with these phrases” (translation open to interpretation)

some of the background text deals with homophobia, rape culture, negative gender stereotypes and heteropatriarchy.

Every time I the conversation of feminism or conversation of gender and sexuality in Korean, it makes me feel good. Because my Korean is very limited, I love adding new words to my dictionary, especially about these things.

Just recently I learned that the Korean translation of Women’s studies is 여성학.. I havent found the equivalent translation for Women’s and Gender studies but Im leaning towards something like 성(sexuality)과 여성학 .?

still learning….

Via: Tales of Wonderlost

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

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 4: Girls are different from boys

Ha Ji-won Breast Size Korean Attitudes(Sources: left, right)

The JoongAng Ilbo reports that having a full rack is seen as a disadvantage for women in North Korea.

This is in marked contrast to the South, where a thin figure and big breasts have become symbols of beauty.

According to defectors, if a woman appears well-endowed in the North, people think she is intentionally and lewdly stressing her femininity, and she can easily come to be regarded as a slut. You have an atmosphere that doesn’t allow women to wear revealing clothing, and the North is still a male-dominated society.

One defector from Hoeryong said she had a work friend with large breasts who often ate chives because she’d heard they make your boobs smaller. She added that she was surprised upon learning that women in the South actually have operations to make their breasts bigger.

(The Marmot’s Hole)

Alas, The Joongang Ilbo provides nothing to verify those claims. But, I see no reason why the defectors would lie, and negative stereotypes of large-breasted women are by no means confined to North Korea. Also, who would ever question that “a thin figure and big breasts have become symbols of beauty” in the South?

Korean Women Revealing Clothing AttitudesFortunately though, Liminality did, who in a must-read response shows that however much the Korean beauty industries and media promote such an ideal, and however much East Asian-women may have a genetic predisposition towards small breasts, female cosmetic surgery patients at least hardly consider themselves lacking in that department. In fact, quite the opposite:

  • Per capita, far more breast surgery operations are performed in European and North and South American countries than in Korea (or Asia)
  • Despite having the highest per capita number of cosmetic surgery operations overall, Korea only came 22nd in the number of breast surgery operations performed per capita
  • Of those operations, Koreans had slightly less augmentation and lift operations than their counterparts in the US and Brazil, and slightly more reduction surgeries (source, above; reproduced with permission)

Similar attitudes may exist in Japan too, where even lingerie maker Wacoal was surprised by the number of women who told told them they wanted a bra that made their breasts look smaller, and then by the huge popularity of the — yes, really — ‘Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small’ design they developed in response. Also, Japanese mail order fashion magazine Bellemaison has developed a ‘Chest Line Cover’ (see second image below) that “promises to be a cool alternative to wearing a real camisole as Japan prepares for another hot summer made even hotter with another year of power rationing,” which I’m sure readers of both sexes can confirm would probably be just as big a hit in Korea.

Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small(Source)

But readers don’t need me to tell them that showing cleavage is still a big taboo in Korea, or that there’s a big disconnect between ordinary Koreans’ — and even models’ — attitudes to fashion, body image, and sexuality and what you may see on Korean TV. And I can’t claim any special expertise on ordinary North Koreans’ attitudes either.

Chest Line CoverHowever, when I read that original post at The Marmot’s Hole, by coincidence I’d also just finished The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s by Susan M. Hartmann (1983), in which she explains that the massive social dislocations of that decade — in particular, women suddenly entering the workforce in large numbers — were responsible for big changes in women’s fashion there, as well as preferred breast sizes. And, as it happens, North Korea is also going through a very turbulent period at the moment, with power relations between the sexes undergoing especially dramatic change:

Imagine going to work every day and not getting paid. Then, one day, you’re told there’s no work to do — so you must pay the company for the privilege of not working.

This is the daily reality facing Mrs. Kim, a petite 52-year-old North Korean. Her husband’s job in a state-run steel factory requires him to build roads. She can’t remember the last time he received a monthly salary. When there are no roads to build, he has to pay his company around 20 times his paltry monthly salary, she says.

“He had to pay not to work for about six months of last year,” Mrs. Kim told NPR, sighing. “You have to pay, even if you can’t afford to eat. It’s mandatory.”

So she is the one who must keep the family alive, as her husband wrestles with this state-sanctioned extortion.

Welcome to the Orwellian world of work in North Korea. In this reclusive country, profound social change is happening beyond the view of the outside world. The demands of politics have dramatically redrawn gender roles, forcing women to become the breadwinners.

(National Public Radio, December 28; hat tip to Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling)
North Korean Women Bikes(Source)

The NPR goes on to mention that one major consequence of that emasculation is skyrocketing domestic violence, against which speculating about ensuing changes in fashions can admittedly sound frivolous. But those have changed regardless — indeed, by state decree. First, in July last year:

Supreme leader Kim Jong-un appears to be loosening the government’s grip on how women dress by allowing them to wear pants, platform shoes and earrings, ABC News reported.

Previously, pants were only permitted as uniforms for females in the factories or the fields — and not for making a fashion statement.

“If caught, sometimes they would cut your pants right there in public to make it into a skirt,” Park Ye-Kyong, who defected to South Korea in 2004, told ABC News.

That doesn’t mean North Korean women don’t enjoy preening, Park added.

“Yes, we were hungry but desire to look beautiful lies in any woman,” she said.

North Korean Female IdealIn addition, the next month a 20 year-ban on women riding bicycles was lifted. Ostensibly imposed for women’s safety, numerous sources also mention its supposed incompatibility with juche, related educational television promoting “the idea of a woman wearing a skirt while riding a bicycle [being] contrary to socialist custom.” (See NK News {source, right} for more on North Korean ideals of women). Moreover, in 2009 Human Rights Watch also noted that:

…the ban on pants and bicycles for women is symptomatic of a range of other, often-overlooked, problems.

Across North Korea’s conservative, male-dominated society, there is discrimination against women, a knowing disregard for the consequences of such policies, and an opportunistic manipulation of power by police officers trying to make easy money by preying on an undervalued and underprivileged population.

In light of that, most likely the lifting of the bans was mainly simple populism on the part of a new leader, as well as — despite those state gender ideologies described above — a reluctant concession to the new realities of female breadwinners. Sure enough, in typical North Korean fashion (pun intended), just 5 months later the ban on women riding bicycles would actually be reinstated. Also, while technically they can still keep their pants on, in practice opportunities for women to beautify themselves remain limited, with both sexes punished for straying from officially-sanctioned hairstyles; sharp divisions in what is permissible for married and unmarried women; and a general lack of (beauty-related) resources overall, including such simple things as hairdryers.

Perhaps, things are not changing in North Korea as much as they first appear?

One Million Yen Girl Part Time Woman(Sources: left, right)

Yet in South Korea at least, it’s true that the last 15 years have seen a vast increase in the numbers of women competing with — and increasingly displacing — men for irregular and part-time work, despite the (extremely low) overall female workforce participation rate remaining unchanged. This has spawned quite a backlash, and — à la The Beauty Myth (1991) — a rapid increase in (overwhelmingly female) objectification in popular culture. So, while again I stress my ignorance and lack of knowledge with anything North-Korea related, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that, surely, the sudden large influx of women into the workforce may also be having some sort of impact there.

The Home Front and BeyondEither way, reading about similar experiences elsewhere can inform an understanding of what’s happening in both countries. So, with the obvious — but still necessary — caveat that of course both countries are very different to the US in the 1940s, for the remainder of this post let me try to pass on some of what I’ve learned about what happened there.

First, it’s important to get a sense of the numbers (pp. 77-8):

  • The female labor force grew by 6.5 million during the war
  • In 1944, 37% of all adult women were reported in the labor force, but nearly 50% of all women were actually employed at some time during that year
  • The greatest changes took place among married women
  • 1 in 10 married women entered the work force during the war, representing over 3 million of those 6.5 million new female workers (3.7 million, according to Marilyn Yalom in A History of the Wife {2002; p. 320})
  • 2.89 million were single, the rest widowed or divorced
  • So, for the first time in US history there were more married women than single women in the workforce.
  • Note however, that the war resulted in many more marriages than there would have been normally — approximately 1 million more, according to Yalom. Moreover, wives of absentee husbands were twice as likely to seek jobs, with half of all servicemen’s wives being in the labor force
  • The percentage of wives that worked grew from 13.9 in 1940 to 22.5 in 1944 (Yalom says 15 in 1940 to over 24 in 1945)
  • The percentage of women with children that worked grew from 7.8 in 1940 to 12.1 in 1944
  • By 1945, half of all working women were over 35; slightly more than 1 in 4 were 45 or older
  • The typical female worker had shifted from younger and single to older and married, a pattern which was maintained in the postwar years

Should Your Wife Take a War JobAs Hartmann elaborates throughout her book, these figures represent an ensuing era of relative opportunity and freedom for many women (including sexual freedom; see Pin-Up Grrrls {2006} by Maria Busnek, pp. 213-224; see below also), even if it was usually simple economic necessity that compelled them to work in the first place (and usually at tedious, menial, and unfulfilling work at that). Accordingly, it definitely set the stage for second-wave feminism in the 1950s and ’60s, and deserves the place it’s gained in the Western historical imagination.

However, it’s also true that despite the huge public and private need for women to enter the workforce, that need was still considerably tempered by both sexes’ preexisting gender and racial ideologies, with both official propaganda and popular culture glamorizing women’s work and stressing its patriotic importance on the one hand, yet emphasizing its strictly temporary nature on the other. Not least, to nervous male workers and servicemen, who: lacked our knowledge that the war would lift the US out of the Depression (source, right); were very much judged by their ability to provide for their families, in an era where many simply couldn’t (note that one big difference between the Depression and the current financial crisis is that many people were literally starving during the former); and who sometimes had genuine difficulties with employment after demobilization, particularly in the shrinking war industries in which the women had been recruited (Hartmann, p. 63).

Buszek summarizes the contradictions of this era well (pp. 214-5):

Pin-up Grrrls pp. 214-5And in particular:

  • Despite the huge demand for workers, and the ultimate, relative flexibility both employers and male employees would demonstrate in incorporating Caucasian women into their midst, African-American women remained largely unwelcome (e.g., 10 months after Pearl Harbor, there were fewer than 100 out of 3000 women in Detroit war industries). So, while the numbers of them working did increase from 1.5 million in 1940 to 2.1 million in 1944, their share of the female labor force actually dipped from 13.8 to 12.5. By 1950, their employment patterns were very similar to those of 10 years earlier, albeit partially because by then their husbands were making more money. (Hartmann, pp. 60, 78-9)
  • Women of Britain Come into the factoriesPartially, the huge numbers of wives that entered the workforce is because there were previously bans against them by many companies, let alone being against social convention; even schools discriminated against them. It’s amazing how quickly bans were dropped once the need for labor arose though, with some previously hostile managers coming to express a “preference for married women as more stable and conscientious than their single sisters” (pp. 59-60). And this provides encouraging news for Korea, which unfortunately still largely retains those conventions, and where as recently as 2009 I was working for a company that — yes, really — fired women upon marriage (source, right).
  • Nevertheless, there remained extreme public and private ambivalence about working mothers. Officially seen as more of a social problem than something to be encouraged, officials did recognize “that financial need compelled some mothers to work and that in localities with severe labor shortages production goals would requite the employment of mothers,” and urged employers not to discriminate against them (p.58). But on the other hand, the government would also constantly remind them that homestay mothers were essential for children’s development; popular culture was full of stories of child neglect; and daycare provision, while expanded, was ultimately completely inadequate, paling behind that which was provided in the UK, and prompting frustrated managers of some defense plants to set up their own (Yalom, pp. 324-6).
Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi Check Out Katy Perry(Source)

But, lest we forget, this post is about breasts. And changes in women’s fashions which came with the contradictions involved with entering the workforce, with women having to confront rampant sexual harassment on the one hand, and often being blamed for the “distraction” they posed, but on the other relishing their newfound freedoms (Buszek, pp. 216-7):

Pin-up Grrrls p216-7However, the combination of war-time shortages and women’s entrance into the workforce meant that people suddenly became used to women in functional, masculine clothing and with more practical hairstyles, and that women’s fashions became more simplified, comfortable, less overtly sexual, and changed less frequently than before. So, when you learn that popular culture stressed the exact opposite, for example…

  • I pledge myself to guard every bit of beauty that he cherishes in meThat female workers were still “glamorous” and feminine despite their new roles (Hartmann, p. 199)
  • As were female sport stars, women’s sports enjoying a lot of popularity while their male counterparts were occupied (p. 194)
  • Lingerie manufacturers coped with wartime shortages and new demand by producing much practical bras, yet these coincided with pinup photographs that emphasized their subjects’ breasts (Jill Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality, 2007, p. 106). As explained in Part 3 of this series, this ultimately led to the fashion for large and uplifted breasts that remains to this day.

…then it is very easy and natural — indeed, this is my very strong impression from the books discussed here, although exact page references are suddenly proving maddeningly elusive(!) — to argue that this alternate ideal was imposed by, for want of a better word, the patriarchy, to encourage women to enter the workforce yet at the same time remind them that their place there was unnatural and temporary. And, to be clear, not for a moment am I arguing that this wasn’t very much the case (source, right).

However, as Hartmann explains on p. 198 below (echoed by the other sources), it’s also true that women themselves were just as passionate about preserving their femininity (indeed, they would understandably revel in impractical but much more feminine fashions once war rationing ended):

Hartmann, The Home Front, p.198In particular, and especially in light of the new opportunities open to them as mentioned, I think it’s both overly dogmatic and patronizing to dismiss choosing to use those feminine adornments as mere false consciousness and women’s own mindless incorporation of patriarchal values. Also, although it’s true that the period was rife with pop psychology theories (it was conveniently claimed that women like boring, monotonous work much more than men for instance) it’s very unlikely that men and women rationalized and articulated their choices and concerns in such patriarchal terms. Even if those did operate on a subconscious level, and patriarchy is still the only thread which can bring otherwise disparate developments in the period together, surely men did not think, for example, that if they saw more big-breasted women in popular culture, emphasizing the differences between the sexes as increased use of lipstick did in the workplace, that this would make them feel more secure in their jobs.

In addition, while changes in attitudes were certainly quick, they didn’t happen overnight, Jill Fields (p. 106) noting that “uplift” and “separation” trends in bras for instance, which accentuated the projection of the breast silhouette, had actually already started back in the 1930s. Finally, if you’re confused like I am, because I just noted above that bras actually became more practical during wartime, and am now stating that women could simultaneously be censured and praised for wearing distracting clothes, that’s because contradictory and competing trends coexisted simultaneously, the 1940s being just as messy, complicated, and contradictory as modern life.

Busty Girl Comics Double StandardAnd on that note, thank you very much for bearing with me in this admittedly equally messy, complicated, and contradictory post, the result of me personally trying to understand what patriarchy means in practice as well as theory. And, with the proviso that my relief — and frankly joy — at discovering historic parallels (and especially English-language historiography!) to modern North and South Korean developments should make me wary of projecting too much, and not blind me to the significant differences, I’m very happy to have pointers towards further study, and very much welcome readers’ own suggestions! (source, right)

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Update: See Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty for “the medical condemnations of women’s cycling [which are] fascinating for what they tell us about what people thought (and maybe still think?) about women’s athletic capabilities and potential.”

Update 2: “Saudi daily al-Yawm cited an unnamed official as saying women can now ride bikes in parks and recreational areas. According to the official, the ruling stipulated that women must wear a full-body abaya, be accompanied by a male relative, and stay within certain areas. They are allowed to bike for recreational purposes only, not as a primary mode of transportation.” (Aljazeera)

Quick Hit: Living as a female smoker in Korea

Coffee and Cigarettes 2003 Fume Cette Cigarette Korea(Sources: left, flygookee; right, Emmanuel Robert-Espalieu, auteur)

The other day Kim Young-hee (26) smoked in public instead of a cafe. She took out a cigarette impulsively while waiting for the bus home after a few drinks with her friends.

“I was a bit tipsy and felt like a puff. After I lit the cigarette, a random middle-aged man came up to me and started shouting as if I had done something very bad. He said, ‘I will slap your face if you don’t throw your cigarette away right now.’ He called me ‘dirty little woman.’”

She still thinks it was ridiculously unfair for him to reproach her because the man was also holding a cigarette…

See The Korea Times for more stories of similar incidents, and my The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Newsflash, Part 4, Korea’s Hidden Smokers) for more context. As explained in the latter (see the article in the last link for a summary of the series), the stigma against women smoking leads to massive under-reporting by them, resulting in official figures of roughly 2-5% of Korean women smoking, against best estimates of roughly 20% (see here for a handy international comparison). What’s more, the previous government was accused of deliberately downplaying the figures to stress its success in lowering the (admittedly more pressing) high male smoking rate, and while technically I haven’t seen the same accusations leveled at the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration, I haven’t found any official acknowledgement of how problematic its figures are either.

Korean Woman Smoking SmallMeanwhile, since my last post in the series was published nearly a year ago, probably the biggest developments have been the Seoul City Council’s continuing efforts to implement its 2011 plans to increase the number of public areas being designated smoke-free to 1/5th of the city by 2014 (smoking on sidewalks was already banned in 2010); and also efforts by some companies, both public and private, that have gone so far as to make being a non-smoker a prerequisite for promotion. For more details on both of those, see “Getting Tough: Korean Smokers Passed Over for Job Promotions” by Bobby McGill at Busan Haps, who also notes that (source, right: sungjinism):

The central government is doing what it can while avoiding Korea’s third-rail of politics, the “sin tax”. Few things more quickly turn the public against you here than raising taxes on Korean’s beloved cigarettes and alcohol. And the evidence shows that aside of potentially costing elected officials their jobs, it does little to curb smoking anyway.

The last time the government raised taxes on cigarettes was in 2004 by 354 won (30 cents) when 52 percent of the male population was smoking. The rate dropped a paltry seven points to 45 percent by 2007, but then increased the three subsequent years hitting 48.3 percent in 2010 before leveling off back at the current 45 percent.

I’d agree that the government is avoiding the sin tax, but disagree that that 2004 tax hike constitutes evidence against its effectiveness: a raise of 354 won being moot when just last year, packs were still at “the very smoker-friendly price of 2,700 won each” (US$2.53 as I type this). Moreover, in November “The International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project’s team of some 100 health experts from around 20 countries” said that “it is imperative for South Korea to raise taxes on tobacco products,” and also 50% of respondents in a December 2010 survey by The Ministry of Health and Welfare “said that they would seriously consider quitting if the price was at least 8,000 won per pack.”

What do you think, about any of the above? Especially those among you that smoke yourselves? Personally, when I hear of women getting threatened, even slapped in the face for smoking in 2013, I’m very skeptical about news of improvements. But I realize that that is likely much more a manifestation of general misogyny than being anti-smoking per se, with Nathan McMurray of Korea Law Today, for instance, being much more optimistic about changing attitudes:

Reducing smoking is a process that will require the collective willpower of the entire country, because it is a habit so deeply ingrained in the culture. However, positive strides have been made to reduce the number of male smokers. In fact, since I have been in this country, I have noticed that the perception/acceptance of smoking has morphed into something different than it used to be.

Either way, let me conclude by passing on some further reading I’ve come across in the past year. First, Smoking Roomspecifically gender and smoking-related, which show that — of course — it’s by no means just Korea where the number of female smokers is soaring (source, right: Jude Lee; CC BY 2.0):

Empowered women smoke more (New Scientist)

Torches of Freedom: Women and Smoking Propaganda (Sociological Images)

Female smoking death risk ‘has soared’ (BBC)

Women who quit smoking before 30 cut risk of tobacco-related death by 97% (The Guardian)

Lung cancer in women ‘to soar’ by 2040 (BBC)

And finally, on some methods for curbing smoking in general:

In an unsurprising development, smoke-free laws have lead to fewer hospitalizations (io9)

Look what they’ve done to my brands: Cigarette-makers will weather the spread of plain-packaging laws (The Economist)

Why cigarette packs matter (Bad Science)

Producing Bodies in Anti-Smoking Campaigns (Sociological Images)

Smoked out: Can a film of a smoker trigger the act? (The Economist)

Quick Hit: Radio Interview Tomorrow

Vector-BG-Yellow-Light(Source)

Tomorrow at about 8:30am, there’ll be a brief interview of me in the “Morning Coffee” section of the 7-9am Morning Wave program on Busan e-FM. More about me than than anything Korean feminism, sexuality, or pop-culture related sorry(!), if you’re still interested you can listen in at 90.5 FM or online here, or catch it later in the archives.

Also, before I forget, back in November I made a small contribution to James Pearson’s (of koreaBANG fame) article “‘Ladygate’ incidents point to misogyny on the Korean Internet” for Yonhap. Sorry for the long delay in passing that on, and please see my “Korean Sociological Image #73: The True Numbers of Korean Working Women” if you’d like more context.

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)