Korean Gender Reader

Neon Gender Source Material F(Source: Carolyn Speranza; CC BY 2.0)

Three news reports to start this series with, in order from the most negative to the positive. All are originally from the Korea Times, here, here and here:

1. Textbooks Hit With Gender Bias Accusation

caveman-taking-a-woman-black-and-whiteBy Kang Shin-who
Staff Reporter

Textbooks for primary school students have been accused of containing illustrations that could create a gender bias.

Male characters appear about 30 percent more often than girls in textbook illustrations and are portrayed as main characters, according to a paper coauthored by Prof Kwon Chi-soon of Seoul National University of Education and Kim Kyung-hee, a teacher at Euncheon Elementary School in Seoul.

”Male characters play important roles in many cases while female characters often play passive roles,” the research team said in the paper. ”Children are vulnerable to the biased role models and textbook writers have to remove those sexual stereotypes.”

The paper said men are depicted as a president, politician, judge, doctor and university professor, while women appear as a teacher, nurse and bank tellers.

Male characters play the main roles about 60 percent more often than their counterparts in textbooks, it said. In social studies textbooks, male characters appeared twice as often as females.

But textbooks for domestic affairs and arts have more female characters than male figures in their illustrations, the paper added.

As a teenager in the early-1990s in New Zealand, I remember reading some school social studies textbooks making much the same points about New Zealand science textbooks of the late-1970s, after which they were (presumably) thoroughly updated. On the one hand this just goes to show how far behind Korean institutions are in their knowledge of and/or concern about gender issues (see more on that here) but on the other it may well presage belated moves to correct that, recent immigration, for instance, leading to an end to Korean school textbooks extolling the virtues of ethnic homogeneity and maintaining pure racial bloodlines (no, really) in 2006. So, although this highlights a problem, surely at least acknowledging that a problem exists is an important and necessary first step? Especially in Korea, where so much is routinely swept under the carpet for the sake of saving face?

Or so I thought before I began writing this post: now that I have, I’m somewhat less optimistic, as I’ve just discovered that the changes to the sexist depictions of gender roles were in fact already supposed to have been made in the 2007 editions! Sigh. Were they been made or not? Were they originally so bad that the recent editions criticized above are in fact the improved versions? If any readers are interested in finding out, please let me know and I’ll do some further investigating, but in the meantime if anyone wants to read more on the subject then here, here and here are some journal articles putting gender roles in Korean textbooks into comparative perspective for you, here and here are two articles explaining why textbook revisions in general are so problematic in Korea, and finally here is Michael Hurt’s convincing visual explanation of where some of Korean children’s stereotypes about race come from.

2. President Lee Calls for Job-Sharingkorean-woman-fuck-you

By Park Si-soo
Staff Reporter

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called for wage cuts Thursday to create more jobs, one day after a government report showed the country’s employment market shrank for the first time in over five years, according to Yonhap News.

“The most urgent issue on our hands is to create jobs for the heads of households,” the President was quoted as saying at a meeting of the Emergency Economy Management Council. The presidential body was set up last week to paddle the country out of the economic crisis.

Lee suggested the government promote “job-sharing” among workers, according to the presidential office spokesman.

“I believe we should think of ways to promote job-sharing by cutting wages,” Lee was quoted as saying by spokesman Lee Dong-kwan. The President added that wage cuts would prompt employers to hire more workers.

The remarks come one day after the National Statistical Office said the country lost 12,000 jobs last month, marking the first contraction since October 2003.

Unless you’re familiar with my thesis topic, then the inclusion of this article here will probably make little sense, but — with the proviso that I’ll have to go to the original Korean source(s) to confirm that that was indeed what he said — if accurately translated, that otherwise innocuous-sounding statement of Lee Myung-bak’s that I’ve highlighted above may have huge long-term implications for Korean feminism.

In a nutshell, this is because it echoes similar statements during the “IMF Crisis” a decade ago, when women were the first to be laid off by Korean companies, under the explicit and oft-repeated assumption that they would be provided for either by their father if they were unmarried (Koreans generally live at home until they’re married), or by their husbands if they were. Being such a comparatively recent entrant into the labor market, and in an environment where women were still overwhelmingly expected to quit their jobs upon marriage or becoming pregnant, then the latter especially would be targeted, to the extent that many desperately kept their marital status a closely-guarded secret from employers, and doing so became a theme of many popular dramas a little later.

My thesis is specifically about how women’s anger at this fundamentally changed Korean women’s perceptions of their ideal Korean men, ultimately giving rise to Korea’s own distinct brand of metrosexuals, but in terms of Korean feminism as a whole the strong reaffirmation of the men as breadwinner and women as homemaker mentality arguably put the cause of women’s right back by at least a decade. Or to be more precise, put them in stasis: not that it’s the only indicator that should be considered when looking at the last decade, but I do think it’s telling that, according to my copy of Working Korea 2007 by Kim Yoo-Sun of the Korea Labor and Society Institute, the gender wage gap shows a slow but steady improvement in the two decades before the crisis, with women making 45% of what men made in 1980; 48% in 1985; 53% in 1990; 60% in 1995; and finally peaking at 64% in 1998…only to stay there for next 8 years. Unfortunately nothing says that like the graph itself, with the straight diagonal line up from 1980 to 1998 and then a virtually horizontal line from 1998 to 2006, but I haven’t been able to find a similar graphic on Korean government websites, nor do I recommend users installing the numerous ‘ActiveX’ programs I reluctantly acquiesced to just to be able to see any statistics at all. I did however, find this corroborating evidence on the English version of the Ministry of Gender Equality website:

As far as I know, so far employers are not again targeting women for layoffs in the recent financial crisis, and while it is certainly severely affecting the Korean middle-class as a whole, I don’t expect the crisis to be remotely as bad as that of 1998. Moreover, the Korean labour market fundamentally changed as a result of that crisis, in the decade since Korea going from having the largest number of job-for-life, male-breadwinner salaryman-style jobs in the OECD to having the most irregular jobs instead (see here), a huge change that has meant that – even though Korean women do still have the lowest labor participation rate in the OECD – families with dual incomes are now the norm rather than the exception, which, combined with there being virtually no political support for working mothers, has meant that the Korean birthrate has plummeted to being the world’s lowest. So it is certainly ominous that, despite this new reality, the Korean president still seems to see women’s economic – and thereby political – empowerment not as something fundamental to a modern, democratic and capitalist nation-state, but instead as almost superfluous to requirements, to be denied to them with every downturn of the economic cycle. In hindsight, given his statements around the period of his election victory, kind of predictable too: see my posts on those here, here, and then here in chronological order.

Despite the potential doom and gloom though – remember the jury’s still out on the current crisis’s effect on women, and on Lee Myung-bak’s specifc remarks –  ironically it will actually be a huge boon to my thesis. One problem with attributing any social change anywhere to a backlash is that, no matter how plausible it may be, how to find direct evidence? Given how tightly constrained Korean women were (and still are) in any open public criticism of men after the IMF Crisis, then even women’s magazines of the period are unlikely to have had any scathing editorials on the subject. But today, in 2009? If I’m right, then I’m very confident that as you read this at least some female netizens will have picked up on this, and be writing all over forums that, well, Lee Myung-bak can go fuck himself…all examples of which will will take pride of place in my bibliography!

(Update: see here for Korea’s gender wage gap worsening in 2007, and here on it also being the biggest in the OECD)

3. Court Convicts Man of Raping Wife

A husband who forced sex on his foreign wife has been convicted of rape, the first time that marital rape has been recognized by a local court.

To date, courts refused to acknowledge marital rape ㅡ a non-consensual sexual assault in which the perpetrator is the victim’s spouse ㅡ because it contradicted a law stating that a husband and wife were mutually responsible for faithfully responding to a request for sex from one another. In 1970, the Supreme Court did not uphold a guilty verdict in a similar rape case.

The Busan District Court sentenced a 42-year-old husband to 30 months in prison, suspended for three years, on charges of raping his 25-year-old Filipino spouse.

In the ruling, Judge Go Jong-joo said, ”the accused infringed upon his wife’s right to have sex or not. Even worse, he frequently used a blunt weapon to threaten her when she refused his request.”

According to statements in court, the husband threatened his wife with a gas gun and a knife.

The man first met his wife through a Seoul-based international matchmaking agency in August 2006 and they married that year. He was indicted in July 2008 after coercively having sex with his wife, who resisted citing her ongoing menstrual cycle. The man appealed the case.

The United Nations said in 2006 marital rape is a prosecutable offense in at least 104 countries worldwide.

To which Tom Coyner provides this excellent commentary, which I can’t really add to:

[This] article raises a lot of questions of what is afoot here.  First, a ruling of this sort is way overdue.  Last year there was a scandal when a Vietnamese wife of a blue collar Korean jumped to her death from her apartment building, but her family strongly believes she was pushed given recent phone calls, letters, etc.  The man walked away unpunished.

In any case, one naturally wonders if this punishment of spousal violence will apply to Koreans wives.  The good news, of sorts, is one no longer sees public wife beating as once did thirty years ago.  But one can only shudder when thinking of what happens in the home.

But getting back to Filipina-Korean marriages, according to a Filipina friend of mine who has lived in Korea many years, the general reputation among Filipinos here is that only one in ten such marriages are viewed as being successful.  Often the problems can be traced back to language problems.  But in any case, drunken wife beating is a common problem.  My friend knew a separate story of a Filipina wife being pushed out a third floor apartment window by her Korean husband.

Another problem is that Koreans are primarily concerned in finding a wife to produce children.  After the offspring are produced, the wives are essentially discarded.

Finally, another sad aspect of this travesty is that the wives are often better educated than their husbands as a result of their families having invested a great deal to ensure their daughters get good and even advanced educations.  Naive expectations include in having their daughters marry someone of a more advanced country, their daughters will fulfill their dreams.  Apparently such dreams, much more often than not, turn into nightmares upon arrival at Incheon.

If you haven’t heard of Tom Coyner, then I highly recommend checking out his website and signing up to his Korean Economic Reader emailing list here; the above comes from that, so obviously it is not just about economic issues.

Update: Unfortunately, as today’s editorial in the Korea Times makes clear, the notion of spousal rape still has quite a few legal hurdles to overcome before it is definitively considered a crime by the Korean legal establishment, let alone by the Korean public.

Update 2: As I reread the report today, I began to have concerns that the issue of spousal rape might get sidelined as an issue of Southeast-Asian immigrant wives rather than of Korean women as a whole, and Baltimoron of the Left Flank blog argues that unfortunately all signs point to this so far.

Update 3: It appears that the Korean husband committed suicide on Monday. For more information, see here.

8 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. Perhaps as a result, I haven’t seen one picture containing humans (except for biology, but that was evenly done) in my college textbooks. I can’t say I regret it though. I don’t quite understand the extent to which having cartoon characters in social studies and science textbooks could help learning anyway.


    1. Perhaps, but I’d make a big distinction between textbooks for adults and textbooks for children!

      Personally I see no problem at all with cartoon characters in school textbooks per se, as they may well engage students that otherwise wouldn’t have been, and this blog in itself is testament to the need to break up text for the sake of making it easie to read, and that’s just for adults, let alone children. Although admittedly there’s a chicken and the egg element to this, cartoons are also much more important in this part of the world than in most Western countries, to the extent that adult Japanese consumers wanting to download them on their mobile phones, for instance, has huge impacts on the telecoms industry there, so with that background then to me personally it would seem strange and somewhat unreasonable to expect Korean textbooks to do away with cartoons completely. Once authors and educators are paying attention to the issue, then it doesn’t sound particularly hard or unnatural to ensure that there’s a balanced mix of gender roles in them.


  2. While I was attending pnu language programme a while ago,I can’t help being quite amused by the sexist and stereotypical language in their textbook to say the least. In an office settg, the capable one would be the korean, while the one who is less capable is Japanese; while the boss is Western.The females will always be portrayed in passive roles like nurse, teachers and housewives; while males are in managerial positions. What is even more funny in the textbook conversations, when the guy asks the girl out, the western girl will say no, how abt another day; while the korean girl will say yes. When this is constantly played throughout the books, u can’t help being amused. But it does portray real life gender relations.


  3. I’m about to hop in the shower and go to work, so a longer reply will have to wait until this evening sorry, but in the off-chance that you see this before then, do you remember the textbook you used by any chance? I’ve come across a lot of them in my 8 years here, so I may well have read it or have it!


    1. Hmmm, can’t say I have that book, no.

      Sorry that that longer reply of mine never materialized by the way, I guess I didn’t really have anything to add really. Which is not to say that your anecdote wasn’t amusing though, and it gives me something to bear in mind that next time I look trough my own Korean textbooks.


  4. Two points to make. One, I see the same distinction in my Korean language books from PNU! Women are always shown doing the housework, being interested in cooking, etc. Men are always shown having higher-standing jobs, and representing the “normal” range of human emotions and situations. The only range the women portray are indetermination in a shop, sadness and anxiousness, and other simple and rather “pathetic” moods.

    Second, my first impression regarding spousal rape was a feeling of being impressed that the first case should be one regarding foreign marriage. You say that you are worried this won’t necessarily bear over for Korean women’s rights. But there are two forces at hand here. One, acknowledgement that domestic violence does happen. Two, acknowledgement that forcing your spouse to have sex with you is wrong. Of these two, I see the second as a greater hurdle to conquer.

    I recognize that the situation is more complicated, that the inferior treatment of Filipinos by Korean society might strangely act out as an assumption that rape might be a natural occurrence in their household, and therefore make a move to help them. In a way, the view on spousal rape get’s the wrong basis. Not as something that would happen to normal people, that is.


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