It’s Official: UNDP Says Korea Now Feminist Paradise (NOT April 1 Joke!)

(Source: unknown)

If there was only one statistic that best sums up contemporary Korean society, then that would be its “Gender Empowerment Measure” (GEM). Calculated by the UNDP, it is:

…an indicator of women’s degree of participation in political and economic activity and the policy-making process, using for its evaluation factors such as the number of female legislators, the percentage of women in senior official and managerial positions, the percentage of women in professional and technical positions, and the income differential between men and women (source).

Or, to put it graphically (see here for more details):

And why Korea’s GEM is so revealing is not just because of its abysmal ranking, which, at 68th out of 179 countries surveyed, is bested even by developing countries such as Kyrgyzstan, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Vietnam, Moldova, Botswana, and Nicaragua. Rather, it’s because that rank is so out of sync with its other rank of 25 in the Human Development Index (HDI), which measures a country’s  standard of living. Surely, as I explained two years ago, there is no greater testament to the palpable gender apartheid here, than the fact that Korea does such a good job of educating and taking care of the health its citizens, only then to effectively exclude fully half of them from political and economic power?

(Source: unknown)

Mentioning this in a conference paper I’m writing on Korean girl groups however, as one does, earlier today my coauthor quite reasonably asked me if a more up to date ranking wasn’t available?

Alas, no. But there did appear to have been some recalculating of the 2008 figures done, with the first thing I saw from my search giving Korea a new ranking of, well, 20th best in the world:

Needless to say, I did a double-take. And indeed, as most of you have probably already guessed, actually the GEM has been abolished. Instead, Korea now has a ranking of 20 in what’s called the “Gender Inequality Index” (GII), calculated according to the following criteria:

What to take away from this? Well first, if I do say so myself, that it’s a pretty interesting thing to end up with, having originated from a paragraph that just one line earlier discusses Girls’ Generation’s signature hot pants.

But more seriously, I do want to stress the incredible achievements that Korea has made in terms of affordable, quality healthcare, well-illustrated by a recent anecdote from Ask a Korean! on a Korean stroke victim in New York, who quite rationally choose to fly 13 hours back to Korea rather than be treated in a hospital there. And it’s also indicative of how dangerous it can still be for women to give birth in many parts of the world, with 1 in 16 new mothers dying in Sub-Saharan Africa for instance, that the UNDP has good reason to think that the Maternal Mortality Ratio needs to be considered in any worldwide measure of gender inequality.

Nevertheless, while budding Canadian politicians, for example, are already taking advantage of their country’s new ranking behind Japan (yet another new paragon of feminist virtue) to say it’s all the government’s fault, it’s probably Korea jumping from 68th to 20th that should be getting the most attention. After all, albeit with apologies to long-term readers for the frequent mention, it does have: among the lowest female workforce participation rates in the OECD; the lowest rate of employment for educated women in the OECD (in fact, Korea is the only country in the OECD where the more educated the woman, the less likely she is to be employed); the largest gender wage gap in the OECD; only 13.7% of its legislators women; and a President that encouraged the mass firing of women to get over the latest financial crisis.


At the very least then, Korea’s example seriously questions the applicability of the GII to developed countries. But can readers can think of any other issues raised?


13 thoughts on “It’s Official: UNDP Says Korea Now Feminist Paradise (NOT April 1 Joke!)

    1. Ahem. Thanks for that, and I should really have checked. In my defense though(!), because the 2010 UNDP reports in all the links above just gave the GII figures for 2008, then I naturally assumed that there hadn’t been a 2009 GEM calculation.

      Either way, with Korea’s GEM at #61 in 2009, then the essential points of the post still remain true of course.


  1. I imagine that Korea places very highly, looking at the scores that compose the GII, in healthcare and education, enough so to balance out the low workforce participation.

    From what I’ve seen, Korea actually scores about average in female participation in the Parliament compared to other developed countries, although I’m guessing from the rarity of hearing about any of them, that they’re mostly local politicians. I did find it interesting that Park Geun-hye, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, is currently leading in the run-up polls to the next presidential election. Being the first East Asian country with a woman leader would certainly give a bit more credence to the Development Panel’s assessment of Korea as more women-friendly that it looks, and she might help address the issues that your blog is centered around, even if she is from the GNP.

    Fingers crossed.


    1. Yes, Korea does indeed score very highly in healthcare and education. And I concede that it’s level of female participation in Congress may well in fact be quite average for developed countries. But I have to completely disagree that Park Geun-hye becoming president would give any credence at all to the UNDP’s assessment of Korea as being women-friendly, the previously-mentioned GEM statistic, for one, demonstrating that the vast, overwhelming majority of Korean women have little real opportunity to gain any genuine economic or political power. Indeed, not for nothing does this “Hip Korea” video on the Discovery Channel last year (discussed here) only focus on a handful of Korean celebrities when it confidently announces that now is the dawn of a wonderful new era of opportunity for Korean women…

      Similarly in a parallel with Margaret Thatcher in the UK in ’79, I think that ideological affiliation is much more important than gender, and so many people may be surprised at how little Park Geun-hye would do for women’s concerns were she to be elected, and may even actively work against them. A good case in point being that of New Zealand, where the first female Prime Minister Jenny Shipley did precisely squat for NZ women, whereas her left-wing successor Helen Clark did a great deal.

      Granted, I know little about Park, and so should give her the benefit of the doubt. But just by dint of her being in the GNP, then I’m not very hopeful.


      1. I think it’s arguable that entrusting the highest political office in a country to a woman expresses some confidence that at least the simple fact of being a woman needn’t be THE limiting factor on a person’s role in society. And I would also point out that, at least to my knowledge, in no country is a woman paid the same as a man; the simple fact is that generally speaking, women have it much harder than men do everywhere. If Korean women seem to have it that much harder than the country’s recent economic status suggests, that’s just an artifact of the history of Korean culture, a history that has in many ways been sharply broken from, which one can only hope will change with time.

        In regard to Park Geun-Hye, I grant you that a major ongoing concern in Korea seems to be the economy, as it is everywhere else these days, and therefore PGH can rely somewhat on her father’s legacy in that measure as a selling point. Although being the conservative party’s head certainly makes it less an automatic assumption that Park would be a huge women’s rights advocate, but all other variables aside, who’s more likely to address such issues, a woman or a man?


        1. I do acknowledge the long-term value of proving that “being a woman needn’t be THE limiting factor on a person’s role in society”. But of course, that wouldn’t mean that systematic barriers to most women’s full economic and political participation wouldn’t remain upon Park Geun-hye become president, nor that a great many people would simply point to her example when others tried to do something about those, with the implication being that they should just STFU.

          Also, sorry, but frankly I find it somewhat apologist to say “in no country is a woman paid the same as a man; the simple fact is that generally speaking, women have it much harder than men do everywhere”, as if the fact that Korea’s exceptionally large gender wage gap, 38% in 2006 and the largest in the OECD (update: since added to the post; also see here, here & here), is no more worthy of note than, say, New Zealand’s of 10% is, nor is evidence of women’s fundamentally inferior role in Korean society relative to other developed ones. Moreover, you continue in the same vein even when you implicitly acknowledge that possibility in your next sentence – “If Korean women seem to have it that much harder than the country’s recent economic status suggests” – by pointing out that “that’s just an artifact of the history of Korean culture, a history that has in many ways been sharply broken from”, as if that a) is not obvious, and b) somehow means that delaying or not making similar breaks with Korea’s patriarchal past is okay. Nor am I very hopeful that things will “change with time” either, with women being fired in droves in the latest financial crisis as mentioned in the post, and the government’s inspired solution to Korea’s low birth-rate being to criminalize abortion (or, technically speaking, to suddenly start enforcing 58 year-old laws outlawing it).

          Finally, yes, certainly, all other variables aside, a female politician is probably more likely to address women’s issues than a male one. I don’t quite see how that’s possible in real-life though, so it’s a moot point.


          1. My point was simply that we, or at least I personally, tend naturally to look at a country’s economic status and then use that data as a guide for where a country at whatever level of development ought to be socially or otherwise. I’m working from a Marxist’s view of history here, and that’s not to say that I expect all of these other issues to resolve themselves with further economic development. The fact that these issues haven’t completely disappeared in more wholly economically-developed nations is proof of that (and I’d argue that a New Zealand woman who’s never worked in South Korea is going to look upon that 10% with the same frustration as a South Korean woman who’s never worked in New Zealand does her 38%). However, evaluating Korea’s progress on women’s issues or other general human rights topics in relation to Western nations is almost unfair; South Korea has only been in a position economically to address these issues in the past two decades or so. That’s not to say that ignoring social issues until various states of economic development is the right thing to do by any means, but the reality of the situation is that that’s how it has long been in most parts of the world. To expect that Korea, or any country, will “develop” (however we define that term) socially as quickly as is possible economically is a mite unrealistic, and again history seems to back up this observation.

            If it seemed or seems like I’m recommending that we let these issues work themselves out and ignore them for the time being, then I misrepresented my opinion. Obviously I consider the issue of gender equality important, otherwise I wouldn’t be following this blog, would I? Similarly, if you thought the situation was hopeless, then you wouldn’t bother either, would you? I just don’t think it’s going to do anyone any good to expect a feminist revolution in Korea of the sort we’ve had in most Western nations anytime soon. Since the end of the Goryeo dynasty, women have been second class citizens; surely I don’t need to tell you that Koreans are a people of their history. And while I neither expect nor certainly hope that it will take half a millenium to fix women’s rights, I don’t expect it to happen overnight, either. Never even mind that we know the Confucian traditions of Korea tend to make such social revolutions even less likely than they might otherwise be.

            In light of all this, it seems constructive to take the GII in its faults and address them, while acknowledging, as you have before, that while the situation remains dire, South Korea is slowly turning the corner on these issues, in whatever ways meaningful and meaningless. Progress is progress, no matter its speed or consistency; belittle what’s already been done and you risk suppressing all hope of future progress.


  2. James,

    As said co-author, I feel a little bit impelled to enter the public record here, because you and I do have a slightly different take on this which we’ll obviously discuss at length elsewhere. A few points to note:

    1) the slight tweaking of a relative weight of a single factor can produce huge differences in indices of this sort. This is also really apparent in the rankings that get issued for the “most livable city in the world” list that get produced annually, and there’s room for lots of subjective difference of opinion on what is most important there. Calgary as 5th most livable city in the world? Well, that’s fine I guess, but most people I know would put a Jan. average daily temp of -9C a little higher in their personal calculations of livability.

    2) the most interesting number to me above is the huge discrepancy above between contraception rates among married women in Korea and Japan; quite a statistically signifcant figure.

    3) I really do take the current index as a much better measure of overall quality of life than the GEM. Parliamentary participation and workforce participation rates are hardly a be-all and end-all. 68 out of 179 isn’t really abysmal, and it’s not a surprise for it to be bested by the Philipppines (I imagine Indonesia would be there too) because there have traditionally been different attitudes towards work and small business activity for women in SE Asia and NE Asia. Indonesia overall doesn’t do too badly but parliamentary participation rates for women lag badly there too, even with a mandated 30% quota. (See Sharyn Graham Davies on all this;

    It’s a relative ranking; all the world’s countries need to be in there somewhere, right? Still 111 countries behind Korea. I don’t think one can assume economic development should mean an equivalent ranking on other indices. Again, I do take the human development index as a better measure of overall quality of life for men and women, and Korea does pretty well on that score. *Of course* there are serious gender-related issues here–definitely not disputing that…wouldn’t be co-writing the paper or agitating about the Arirang video if not, but I also see a danger in portraying Korea (to take the heavy irony of your title in its opposite direction) as some kind of feminist hell–not that I’m saying you do, by any means, but it’s something to give thought to.


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