Male Privilege at Korean Universities

Lee So-hee (이소희) and friends at Hanyang University (한양대학교) circa 1960sSource: Michael Sean Gallagher; CC BY-SA 2.0

Turning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 2

In Korean universities, the male students are usually two to three years older than the female students. In such a strict, age-based hierarchical society as Korea, that’s kind of a big deal.

They’re older because most Korean men do their military service while they’re students, then return to university to pick up where they left off. I never realized how that how that might impact their female classmates though, until late last year, when a colleague complained that all the women in his classes—and only the women—were missing crucial tests and exam prep. It turned out, they had to schlep across town to the other campus to act as meeters and greeters for visiting high-schoolers. Why only the women, I asked. Just convention, he guessed; after all, Korean “helpers”(doumi /도우미) are exclusively women. Also, they were performance and musical majors, and we later learned that those departments were responsible for providing the students, with certain quotas to be met by each class.

And in those classes, older students pulled rank on their juniors. Who just happened to be women.

These senior/junior relationships are common practice in Korean universities, although usually they operate between grades, and different majors and institutions vary widely in how rigidly their students adhere to them. Obviously, men are victims of the system too. But just as obviously, if students’ ages also matter, then it seems that finishing military service brings explicit male privilege for returning students.

Many would see that as fair compensation, and perhaps they have a point. But with some men feeling that they’re “owed,” there’s always the danger that they’ll take advantage of their juniors, who had nothing to do with their forced military service. I also think that for my colleague’s students, who weren’t happy about “volunteering” but seemed resigned to it, such experiences presage the gender roles and expectations of unpaid labor they’ll face when they enter the workforce, which is even more hierarchical. Either way, it’s a concrete example of how and why military service is a huge socialization agent in Korea, and one that’s often taken for granted. Which is what this series is all about.

What do you think? Whether as a professor, student, or parent, what has been your own experience of this age-based hierarchy at Korean universities? Please let me know in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Male Privilege at Korean Universities

  1. I am a foreign student at a Korean University in a Humanities graduate program. With the Humanities not being seen as having future earning potential, I think that there are far fewer male students who decide to study it at a higher level, as such, in my first semester there were only 3 men currently attending classes. The next semester five men with admitted in addition to a couple more female students. However, this addition of male students meant a sudden increase in requests for students to perform physical labor including moving furniture and heavy boxes across campus which were almost exclusively asked of the male students. While they did perform what was asked of them, all of the tasks could have been performed by female students as well, but they were never asked.

    This division of labor continued on a trip we all took with our professors and underclassmen to the countryside when all the male students were required to grill meat for everyone and because of the set up of the area, smoke was constantly blowing into their faces and they got much less to eat than all the other students because the teachers’ plates must never be empty making it impossible for the men to leave their posts. Female students did offer to switch out with them, but since the work had been allotted to them and to protect the women from the heavy smoke, the men continued their grilling until no meat was left.

    These instances show how tasks that could have been equally shared were forced upon the men because of their gender and their being ‘newcomers’ to the graduate department.


    1. Thanks very much for your comment, and sorry for completely forgetting about it while I was working on Part 3. I appreciate your giving examples of, like I said, “men are victims of the system too” (but didn’t elaborate on), and in both cases I’m curious as to how and by whom they were ‘asked,’ or whether it was just unspoken?

      Either way, although I’ve never experienced it myself, I’m reminded of how much unpaid work students of either sex are expected to do at Korean universities, which is a stark contrast to the none at all I had to do at Auckland University 20 years ago. I’m also suddenly reminded of when my boss at my first ever hagwon job in 2000 needed to move the hagwon to new premises, which all of the Korean staff basically did for him all weekend for free, which they all thought of as completely natural (and resented us for not offering to join in). Whereas my Canadian colleagues and I thought that was:

      a) him just taking advantage of them and being cheap by not hiring professional movers
      b) not in our job description, and
      c) something we still might have helped a little with if our boss was nice, but didn’t because he treated us terribly, and his Korean workers even more so…

      …which left us feeling pretty stumped about how they still did all that unpaid work nonetheless. In hindsight though, it would have been no great leap from doing that to having done the same sort of thing at university. Also, of course we were very privileged, and, just like with your Korean male classmates in 2016, there would probably have been some repercussions to refusing :(


      1. All that said, if all the Korean staff had taken the same position as us (i.e., refused to work all weekend for free), then my old boss could hardly have fired them all, and would have been forced to use movers. So although again, it’s very easy and privileged of me to take advantage of that option and say this next, Korean employers and professors aren’t going to stop taking advantage of their staff and students until people do speak up about it.


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