Why is Korea’s Largest Marriage Agency Only Targeting Women?

Potential customers are put off by unequal sex ratios, and Duo already has more female customers than male ones. So what gives?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

I know, I know—I’m not even divorced yet, and I’m already looking at marriage agencies. But the reality is that Duo’s latest campaign ads are just impossible to avoid on Korean public transport at the moment. And the obvious emphasis on attracting female customers in them, for a service ostensibly about providing those women with as many romantic encounters with male suitors as their finances allow, should give everyone misgivings. For it’s not like correcting an excess of male customers is the motivation.

This concern may still sound odd. “Sweet,” I’d wager, is what usually comes to mind when most people see Duo ads. Indeed, I only did a double-take at this one at all because I happened to be reviewing my translations of a lavishly-illustrated, feminist Korean book about paintings of nude women (as any normal person does on the subway), and, glancing up, was immediately struck by how unlike those paintings the ad was. For actor Lee Shi-won/이시원‘s look back at the viewer doesn’t exactly scream pandering to the male gaze. Nor did all the other Duo ads on the subway carriage I could see from my seat, some of which just had Lee alone, and only one of which had model Noh Seong-Su/노성수 looking back with her.

Source: Duo.

Then my stop was coming up. And you don’t exactly need to have read Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements to be realize what the ‘relative sizes‘ of Lee and Noh in these ads signify in the ads I saw once I stood up:

But so what? What is the issue exactly, about Duo prioritizing women?

Well, the last time I checked in 2020, Duo had more female than male customers then, at a ratio of something like 6 to 4 or 5.5 to 4.5.

I don’t know if this ratio was affected by the pandemic. But regardless, more women competing for fewer men clearly disadvantages them. That extra level of competition also incentivizes charging women more for the same services offered men. Which indeed Duo, and most of the over 1000 other registered agencies out there, do so with a gusto.

Moreover, Duo, already experiencing massive drops in sales in the mid and late-2010s, almost made none at all in 2021 thanks to the pandemic, as marriages and childbirths, still inexorably tied together in Korea, dropped precipitously. Which, once again, was something the subway carriage wasn’t subtle about reminding me:

So, although Duo clearly retains the financial resources for its latest massive campaign, I speculate that it may actually represent a doubling-down on financially discriminating against young women. And, given Duo’s position as a industry leader and model, I have concerns about what this will have on Korean dating, gender roles, and marriage norms.

Not convinced? Really, it’s only a matter of degree. Please see my in-depth investigation from 2020 for a plethora of evidence on how that sexual discrimination has in fact been occurring for decades. And don’t let me forget the influence on body-image either: just a few months ago, one agency focusing on wealthy clients, with nearly half a million customers, came under fire for its strict financial criteria for admitting men, but only requiring a members’ vote of 3.6/5 on appearance alone to admit women. I also invite readers to consider that demanding women pay more to date men than vice-versa,* and deliberately skewing their customers’ sex ratios to justify this, is surely yet another form of “pink tax” that perpetuates the gender gap.

*(I realize that the norm in Korea is for men to pay on dates; no social issue that is interesting isn’t complicated!)

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There are More Entry-level Korean Women Journalists than Men These Days. So Why do Most Leave the Industry in Less Than 10 Years?

It’s not as simple as just increased childcare responsibilities—Korea already has a record-low birthrate, and women journalists the world over have less children than women in most other professions. So what gives?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Photo (cropped) by Dynamic Wang on Unsplash.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, I like to think, that a single industry so possessed by one sex, must be in want of dramatic reform.

Okay, I did force that Austen-like opener somewhat.

But when you realize that the entry number of Korean women journalists has started to exceed that of men in recent years, only for most women to leave the industry in less than 10 years? Also, that the ensuing absence of women mentors, and continued domination of newsrooms by masculine culture are, ipso facto, some of the main causes of that?

Perhaps awkward forced changes, such as quotas for board members of news organizations, are precisely what the industry needs.

I can’t pretend to possess insider knowledge in that regard, nor detailed solutions. But from now on, I can at least share everything I’ve collected about sexism and bias in the Korean media industry over the years to spread awareness, as well as anything new as it comes up. In particular, such a gold mine of information as Na Yeon Lee and Changsook Kim’s “Why Are Women Journalists Leaving the Newsroom in South Korea? Gendered and Emerging Factors that Influence the Intention to Leave” just published last month in Journalism Practice.

If your interest isn’t piqued just by the title alone, let me leave you with some telling quotes that demonstrate why it really should be,* and please get in touch if you don’t have access to a copy.

*Apologies for removing the numerous sources mentioned for the sake of readability. Please consult the original for those, many of which sound just as interesting and informative as this one!

Just four years, ago MBC anchorwoman Lim Hyeon-ju caused a sensation by defying the rule that female news anchors weren’t allowed to wear glasses on the job.

First, on why I think quotas are absolutely necessary:

…in South Korea in 1996, JoongAng Daily, one of the largest South Korean newspapers, employed only 24 women journalists out of a total of 402 journalists. Soon after, the percentage of women journalists began to surge so that by 2020 women accounted for about 32.8% of the total number of journalists. However, most women journalists were younger and about 10% of women journalists were in top-management positions.

And:

In South Korea in recent years, although the entry number of women journalists has exceeded that of men journalists , there were only 7 women out of 138 (5.07%) board members among the 29 major news organizations.

Next, on why a gender balance in news media is so important:

The under-representation of women journalists in newsrooms is regarded as problematic based on findings of previous studies that the gender of journalists influences their reporting practices as well as the content of news coverage. For example, a recent study found that news organizations where women journalists occupy positions at editorial levels were more likely to have covered the “#Me Too Movement” than organizations without women editors in high positions. In fact, previous studies have repeatedly reported that with fewer women journalists, portrayals of women as well as marginalization of women’s concerns are themes often overlooked in news stories. Therefore, if women journalists consistently exit the news industry, their voices in covering newsworthy topics will likely disappear along with recommendations for improved newsroom policies and culture.

Moreover, in the absence of upper-level women journalists…

…several studies have shown that while the number of women journalists has increased, characteristics of newsrooms as masculine domains remain entrenched. In fact…“Young women journalists decided to resign because of men-centered culture and they felt they had less attention than men journalists from their organizations.” [Also], although there has been an increase in the number of Korean women journalists in recent decades, the traditional model of newsrooms based on a male model that expects strong work commitment and unusually long hours has not substantially changed. In addition, in South Korea, women journalists often face work-family conflicts after marriage due to society’s concepts of the traditional gender role of women, influenced by Korean cultural standards.

Photo by Anh Tuan To on Unsplash.

And finally, in conclusion:

…the results of this study show that the three most important factors in women journalists’ leaving the newsroom are (1) the weakening of social status, (2) a newsroom dominated by masculine culture, and (3) additional online workloads.

…although more and more women journalists have entered the news industry, the masculine newsroom culture has not changed because most of high-level positions in news media organizations are still held by men journalists. Interestingly, in-depth interviews, conducted…with nine young women journalists who resigned with less than 10 years of experience, revealed they had voluntarily left because they were unable to “find a role model who overcame the male-centered culture of a journalist society and the organizational culture of newspaper companies.” Their responses indicate that women journalists in South Korea continue to be perceived as “often excluded from the internal networks established by men.” Also, they are less likely than men to have the benefit of mentors.

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ZOOM TALK: “Missing Voices that Matter: a history of Japanese women law professorial pioneers, considering the social impact of their scarcity,” Tue 11 October 6pm (PDT)/ Wed 12 October 10am (KST)

Pervasive sexual inequality can feel like death from a thousand cuts. No one source of pain or minor irritation isn’t possible to dismiss or play down in favor of other, more visceral struggles against the patriarchy. But as it turns out, women’s relative absence from the legal profession has cascading effects across all society.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by cottonbro at Pexels.

When young Korean men return to university after doing their military service, they’re generally two to three years older than their female classmates. In a society where age really, really matters, this gap can grant those men a great deal of privilege. For example, by being able to avoid various mundane tasks periodically required of students by the university, as these get foisted onto the young(er) women instead. Like during this coming December after the university entrance exams, when some of my female students will be expected to “volunteer” to waste a precious day before their tests by bowing in the freezing cold to visiting high-schoolers as they arrive on the bus, while my male students study from the warmth comfort of the library.

Damn right, do I see a direct link to why so many talented and highly educated women are wasted answering the phones and making the coffee at Korean workplaces.

All of which may feel like an odd introduction to announce an upcoming hybrid talk (register) by Mark A. Levin and Tomomi Yamaguchi at the David Lam Centre of Simon Fraser University, which is not actually about Korea at all. But, based on its description below, it still feels intimately useful and relevant nonetheless. Specifically, I’m wagering it will reveal many more instances of how something seemingly innocuous like a slight age gap can have surprisingly wide implications for sexual equality, offering many similar possibilities to explore—and combat—in the Korean context:

“While the U.S. and Japan’s earliest generation of female legal scholars showed roughly similar numbers, their paths soon diverged dramatically. The number of women in the two legal academies in the 1950s to about 1960 were not all that different. Both nations counted phenomenally low numbers similarly. The U.S. took an early lead, but not by all that much. One report counted five women in tenure track positions in the U.S. in 1950 and another counted fourteen women before 1960. Japan could count five women by 1956 and eight women by 1958. Neither fifteen women in the U.S. nor eight women in Japan represent even token counts among individuals who made up the two countries’ legal academy professoriate in those times.”

“The difference then is in what followed. In the U.S., we crossed a count of 100 women around 1970 and then accelerated to 516 women by 1979, while Japan’s count essentially flatlined. From 1958 in Japan, there were no new women entrants for about ten years and then the next uptick in Japan was just five women entering the field in the late 1960s through 1974. After a second near hiatus of about eight years, Japan then saw some modest growth to have a total of twenty-two women who had entered law teaching by 1988. Our next found data point is 402 women in 2004.”

“The profound scarcity of voices of women academics as leaders, teachers, and scholars in Japanʻs legal academy for several decades remains significantly detrimental for Japanʻs gender circumstances today. The story demonstrates how crucial womenʻs and other feminist voices are in addressing gender gaps and dismantling patriarchy in a society. In particular, having women and feminist allies in the legal academy is essential for feminism to advance in a society. Conversely, deficits regarding women and feminist allies in the legal academy will invariably impact the overall society’s gender circumstances for the worse. And so, just as feminist legal theorists would suggest, it seems essential to assess those circumstances in Japan with the idea that gender gap deficits in Japan’s legal academy must be at least a contributing factor to the nation’s profound and distressing gender gap situation more generally that continue to the present day.”

“This talk aims to explore not only how, but why the two paths diverged so significantly. With time allowing, some effort will be made to draw upon Canada’s circumstances to add another historical sequence into the telling here.”

Truthfully though, it was not those possibilities that first convinced me to sign up. Rather, it was the disjuncture the blurb noted between Japan’s postwar democratic, egalitarian ideals and the actual practice in Japanese women’s personal and professional lives. For it all sounded very familiar (as it probably did to many of you too), having already read much the same in a chapter from a classic Korean studies book: “The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture” by So-hee Lee (pp. 141-164) in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laruel Kendell, 2002). To refresh your memories from page 144, with my emphases:

“[Korean women in their early-30s {now early-60s}]…were the first female generation to go to school en masse, side by side with their brothers. As Wonmo Dong (1988) argues, they learned democracy and its fundamental principles of liberty and equality as an academic subject, not as something to practice in everyday life. From the beginning of their university days, around 1980, they were pushed into the whirl of extremely violent demonstrations to demand national political democratization. Although political protests had long been a part of Korean student life, there was something about the culture of protest that emerged in the 1980s that was different from what had gone before; student activism became an all-pervasive and all-defining experience. In those days, various slogans and ideologies relating to the struggle for democracy were strongly imprinted on the consciousness of this generation as a metadiscourse. However, the students of the 1980s never examined these democratic values in the context of their own everyday lives.”

“Go Alone Like the Rhinoceros’s Horn (Source, left: Whitedevil) illustrates the bifurcation between theory and practice. Looking at their mothers’ lives, Korean women in their early thirties believed that their marriages would be different. Because the Korean standard of living and patterns of material life changed very quickly, they believed that Korean ways of thinking had been transformed with the same speed. This is where their tragedy begins. As Hye-Wan in the novel says, mothers “teach daughters to live differently from themselves but teach sons to live like their fathers” (Kong 1993, 83–84). As a result, the daughters’ generation experiences an enormous conflict between the real and the ideal. During sixteen years of schooling, they have learned that equality is an important democratic value, but nowhere have they been taught that women experience the institution of marriage as a condition of inequality. Many married women of this generation have experienced a process of self-awakening similar to that of Yông- Sôn, who early in the novel tries to kill herself. She says,“Where have I been during the last eight years of my marriage?” and concludes,“Though I don’t want to accept it, I’ve been a sincere and faithful maid who must carry out his every request” (109). Korean wives in their thirties cannot envisage a real-life alternative to the self-sacrifices of their mothers’ generation.”

See “Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality in Flux in the 1990s” for a further discussion of Lee’s chapter. And, please feel free to say hi in the private chat if you are able to attend the talk! ;)

(But if you can’t make it, hopefully the talk will be made available on the Centre’s YouTube channel later.)

Update—Indeed it was. There seem to be technical difficulties embedding it here however, so if the video below doesn’t work please watch it on YouTube:


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Blackpink’s Rosé Deserved So Much Better Than the “Young Silly Woman Puts Product on Head” Advertising Trope.

It’s all very cute and charming until you realize how rarely you see it used on men. Why is that?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Right: So-hee of the Wonder Girls.

Yeah, Rosé does look very cute and charming in that poster. So it’s not like I’m about to boycott my local Homeplus over it. I have absolutely nothing against her either, who likely had little to no input in the direction of their advertising campaign. But when you realize that peach on her head effectively sabotages the whole concept behind that campaign, despite all the planning, preparation, and financial risks involved in hiring one of the hottest and most expensive stars in the world to help create that concept in the first place, then you really do have to ask why.

The poster, one of two of her that that now feature prominently at Homeplus stores (and online), is part of the chain’s “25 Years: A Fresh Way of Thinking” rebranding campaign to mark its 25th anniversary and launch of its new one hour delivery service. But critics were non-plussed by Rosé’s first, very different commercial for the campaign in February below, only grading it only a 2.6 out of 5. One of them thought the dancing and focus on Rosé’s face and body in the first half rendered the commercial more like one for Yves Saint Laurent, for whom Rosé already works as an ‘ambassador.’ Many others, that the luxurious, almost mature tone and atmosphere would only cause confusion among consumers when the logo for the homely supermarket chain then suddenly appeared. Also, that people’s attentions would be concentrated more on Rosé rather than on the service being advertised, and that stressing that she was 25 was unnecessarily ageist and alienating. (Actor Yeo Jin-goo was also hired as an endorser for being 25, with his own commercial rightly focused on high quality food. But the limelight has firmly been on Rosé.)

I tended to agree, especially about the unnecessary alienation of the bulk of its much older customers. Because well before I saw that commercial, I’d already noticed Rosé’s and Yeo Jin-goo’s glamorous visages in the giant banners below at my own local Homeplus, their eyes seeming to follow me as I perused the toiletries aisle, pondering which toilet paper best represented me as a person. Their purpose just baffled me. Neither of them offered any hint of any particular new Homeplus product or service, with both just saying (lit.) “Why? I have this fresh thinking because I’m 25.” Was Homeplus trying to remind me I’m almost twice as old? That just like when I used to run into my horrified students in bars, could I please just stop embarrassing them and leave?

Shockingly however, younger Koreans didn’t seem to care less about any of their elders and betters thought of the campaign. By April, there were 30 percent more visitors to brick-and-mortar stores in that age group than a year previously; of 20-24 year-olds specifically, a whopping 60 percent. Meanwhile, online customers in the 20s and 30s combined also increased by 60 percent.

(Staggering success stories like these are a major reason why Korea has the highest number of celebrity endorsements in the world. As is ignoring the 9 out of 10 times signing on expensive stars actually proves to be a complete waste of money.)

Which still doesn’t mean it was a good commercial. It wasn’t. But the next one, which came out on July 14, was. It refined the concept, presenting the perfect combination of the millennial dream of living in own’s one place in the heart of Seoul, of having the free time to luxuriate over the exquisite-looking grapes, and of having such a convenient fast delivery service for them available. And, lest I forget: that it was want-her or want-to-be-her Rosé showing us all of this too:

Which is why I’m so annoyed by the laziness of the two accompanying banner posters, which have since replaced those for the first commercial in stores (poor Yeo Jin-goo is nowhere to be seen):

This first one, ironically used as the YouTube thumbnail, is simply poorly executed: as it happens, I consider myself a more sensual person than most (just throwing that out there), but even I can’t picture anyone so enjoying the texture of grapes that they’d ever want to rub them against their face. But let’s say I do suspend my disbelief for a moment. Even then, I’m still not getting the feeling from this poster that Rosé was, say, really, really enjoying the grapes just a moment ago, but has suddenly just noticed me and is about to invite me to join. Instead, the poster simply shows what actually happened: she was instructed to put the grapes to her face, so she obliged. Not to pretend to be interested in them too, as she was asked and did so well in the commercial.

By all means, the grapes do add an aesthetically pleasing splash of green, and vaguely fit in with the headline of “As fresh as you see.” Her mesmerizing gaze back at the viewer? It quashes all doubts of why she’s a superstar. And perhaps—okay, I see it now—the taut, tight skin of the grapes is meant to vibe with Rosé’s own. Again, symbolizing that freshness concept. (But so too, illustrating the huge potential for any celebrity endorser to completely overshadow the advertised service or product.) But surely it was possible to do so without losing the sensuality of the original commercial?

Just see for yourself. Compare this first of two additional images Homeplus released on its Instagram on July 15, but neither of which seem to be displayed in stores. (Yes, I’ve visited four in the last two weeks to check, feverishly snapping away at Rosé; by now, the security staff have probably flagged me as a perverted samcheon fan.) This one isn’t perfect by any means, but it at least retains some of the sensuality of the commercial, by reminding consumers that delicious-looking grapes are best enjoyed by actually eating them. And again, even if making a link to her youthful skin was considered just as or even more important (because Korea), why not combine both motifs?

This next, much cuter and more playful Instagram one, is very difficult to dislike (notice a recurring theme?). But it too represents a big step away from the sensual concept of the commercial, and of the commercial before that as well. And yet, still it would have been a far better choice than the second poster actually chosen for the stores and homepage:

There’s three big reasons not to like it. No, really.

First, in the second, very aspirational TV commercial it’s ostensibly tied to, we were supposed to pretend Rosé was just like you and (much younger) me, only with a nicer apartment and more carefree lifestyle. Which worked. To a greater or lesser extent, you could still roll with that vibe in all of the other images with the grapes above too. Whereas this one just casually tosses that carefully crafted fantasy aside. As playing with the product by putting it on your head, combined with her looking not at you, but at a more important, separate person/photographer instead, instantly identifies her as a glamorous model or celebrity. Ergo, not at all like you or me.

Second, just in case I haven’t stressed it often enough: the whole concept of the entire campaign, best expressed in the second commercial, was all about Homeplus gratifying your senses. Being able to get your fresh fruit quickly through its new delivery service, then enjoying, perversely lingering on and luxuriating in its look, taste, smell, feel, and—if you try hard enough—sound too. There was a strongly implied erotic potential as well. But here? What I actually see when my raging alcoholism drives me to head out to my local store for a cheap bottle of whiskey? That would be placing a peach on your head. As in, Homeplus no longer cared what I think of how that peach looks, tastes, smells, and feels like, the whole ostensible reason for signing on its to new, trendy, one-hour delivery service in the first place (what, you too had forgotten this is what the campaign was selling?). Rather, the peach has become instead just a prop, a toy even, which ultimately could be replaced by just about anything Homeplus sells and still have the same effect. Say, even that toilet paper I eventually did choose.

So, being generous, at best it’s lazy. It’s unoriginal. You could say the peach on her head loosely matches the headline of (lit.) “Whenever, with no burden, lightly,” but it’s tenuous. More likely, the advertisers asked Rosé for that pose because again, it simply makes her look cute and carefree, campaign concept be damned. And also because third, finally, and more likely still, that’s just what advertisers do with young female models.

Allow A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose to explain:

“Look at these images. What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

“What about these images?”

“Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?”

Or, to conclude by going back to where we started: no matter how cute and charming Rosé may appear in the last poster, the campaign’s concepts of sensuality, luxury, and convenience are frequently confused by focusing on her looks, skin, and cute personality instead. Had they been the focus from the get-go, that would have been fine, and I wouldn’t have been annoyed at all.

I really do have better things to do with my time than write about this shit.

Instead, I’m reminded that it’s just so normal and unremarkable to infantilize grown women in ads, and that advertisers just can’t help themselves.

But why does women putting products on their head necessarily have that effect?

Because in addition to the aforementioned gender imbalance (which is the real issue; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being cute), let me leave you with two pages from the classic Gender Advertisements by sociologist Erving Goffman, first produced the same year as me—1976. Sometimes, as you’ll see, it’s astounding to realize how little has changed in the 46 years since then.

Or, for that matter, the last 25:

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Recent Studies Show it’s Hands-On Fathers That Have More Children, NOT Fictitious Alpha Males. The Implications for Raising Birthrates are Clear.

One recent study demonstrates the more of their fair share of housework and childcare fathers do, the more children they’ll probably have; another, the many entrenched workplace and social welfare practices that prevent Korean men from doing so. Loudly challenging the stereotypes and gender norms that discourage them, however, should be a no-brainer for policymakers.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes. Photo by Annushka Ahuja from Pexels.

A lot of things have to come together, for a successful dating, sex, or family life.

Sadly, those combinations elude most young South Koreans. Which is not to say you won’t still see plenty of couples out on dates in this warm weather, popping into love hotels, or families out for a stroll. But when you do, as @publiusterence points out in this insightful Twitter thread, notice also their expensive haircuts, clothes, smartphones, handbags, watches, strollers, and cars. Then you realize: some of the very best things about being human, which the vast majority of us deeply, instinctively aspire towards, are simply “becoming a privilege for the middle class and above.”

No wonder everyone else is so angry.

There are a host of familiar, intractable reasons for this increasing bifurcation of Korean life. Too familiar, really. Who amongst you hasn’t already read how the economy in Korea is so polarized for instance, that singles say they simply lack the time and money to go on dates or have sex, let alone ever getting married and owning a home? Or how heavily the importance and costs of education (PDF) weigh on the decision to have children? Which only married people can even ponder really, so daunting remain the stigmatization and legal problems suffered by single mothers, as well as the strong taboos against having children if the parents have no intention to marry?

Is it any surprise that on the day of writing, a poll revealed that over half of 20-somethings don’t plan to have children after marriage?

And so depressingly on.

Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

Yet some of those reasons may also feel familiar, and personally and painfully so, because you’re in a similar position yourself—only you’re not in Korea. Which further begs the questions: to what extent are Korea’s own cultural and gender norms responsible for Korea’s world-low birthrate? Or, are they simply due to late-stage capitalism? How to tease the effects of each apart?

Such inquiries slide easily into a longstanding, ongoing sociological debate known as “convergence vs. divergence,” over whether the demands of capitalism force societies to adapt economically inefficient social, cultural, and gender norms as they develop, thereby making advanced capitalist societies resemble each other more over time, or whether some norms will endure regardless. Which is what makes the following graph, spreading rapidly on Korean Twitter, so interesting:

Source: Figure 16, “The Economics of Fertility: A New Era,” p. 32. Note that “Men” should more accurately say “Fathers.”

From the April 2022 “The Economics of Fertility: A New Era” by Matthias Doepke, Anne Hannusch, Fabian Kindermann, and Mich`ele Tertilt, a manuscript in preparation for the upcoming Handbook of Family Economics, unfortunately Korea is little mentioned specifically in the 129 page (but still fascinating) document. However, one of two potential takeaways is the seeming endurance and overwhelming influence of Korean cultural and gender norms. The dominant narrative projected by English-language commentators on Korean society after all, not least by myself, is that Korea remains a fundamentally sexist society. As BBC journalist Simon Maybin puts it in his August 2018 article, “Why I Never Want Babies,” with an iconic quote on this issue which I’ve often said myself (but am relieved to now have a much more reliable source for!):

A culture of hard work, long hours and dedication to one’s job are often credited for South Korea’s remarkable transformation over the last 50 years, from developing country to one of the world’s biggest economies.

But Yun-hwa says the role women played in this transformation often seems to be overlooked.

“The economic success of Korea also very much depended on the low-wage factory workers, which were mostly female,” she says.

“And also the care service that women had to provide in the family in order for men to go out and just focus on work.”

Now women are increasingly doing jobs previously done by men – in management and the professions. But despite these rapid social and economic changes, attitudes to gender have been slow to shift.

“In this country, women are expected to be the cheerleaders of the men,” says Yun-hwa.

Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1

More than that, she says, there’s a tendency for married women to take the role of care-provider in the families they marry into.

“There’s a lot of instances when even if a woman has a job, when she marries and has children, the child-rearing part is almost completely her responsibility,” she says. “And she’s also asked to take care of her in-laws if they get sick.”

The average South Korean man spends 45 minutes a day on unpaid work like childcare, according to figures from the OECD, while women spend five times that.

“My personality isn’t fit for that sort of supportive role,” says Yun-hwa. “I’m busy with my own life.”

Also, for your interest, and because far more people need to be aware of Kaku Sechiyama’s excellent book, Patriarchy in East Asia: A Comparative Sociology of Gender (2015), here is his summary (p. 164) of Korean surveys from a decade earlier. As a reviewer noted, “it is in Korea (South and North) where motherhood is most pronounced, as is a household division of labor by gender”:

However, @publiusterence’s example also suggests looking beyond the headlines, as well as our preconceived stereotypes. For in addition to demonstrating that even in the progressive, supposed feminist utopias of Scandinavian countries, fathers still only do a third of the housework and childcare as mothers, a second, slightly contradictory potential takeaway is that regardless of the country, having fathers pull their weight more will invariably increase the fertility rate.

Source: Figure 16, “The Economics of Fertility: A New Era,” p. 32. Note that “Men” should more accurately say “Fathers.”

Does that make it also a potential point of convergence between capitalist societies? Admittedly, to posit it as such may seem misguided, as considering childcare and housework to be primarily mothers’ responsibilities is the very definition of a gender norm in itself. But the alternative, writing off all Korean fathers as simply lazy and sexist, is not exactly fair. Nor does it offer much in the way of solutions.

Instead, surely it is more helpful to point out the many structural factors that prevent Korean fathers from doing more work at home (whether they actually want to or not), as well as to point out practical steps that can overcome those.

Addressing the elephant in room first however, that last—let alone this post’s title—is not meant to imply that Korean policymakers aren’t already well aware of those many structural factors. Also, that they defy easy fixing, simply by virtue of not having already been done so. For an excellent summary of them, I recommend the second recent study, “Revisiting the Gender Revolution: Time on Paid Work, Domestic Work, and Total Work in East Asian and Western Societies 1985–2016” by Man-Yee Kan, Muzhi Zhou, Kamila Kolpashnikova, Ekaterina Hertog, Shohei Yoda, and Jiweon Jun in Gender & Society released just a month before that graph. Some highlights (my emphases):

Since the 2010s, the Korean government has introduced a series of family policies such as paid parental leaves, subsidized childcare services, and flexible working to help women and men to balance work and life. Public and social expenditure in Korea increased from five percent in 1990 to ten percent in 2012, but the figures were lower than the OECD average. Yet some scholars have classified the welfare regimes in Korea and Japan as [our “Conservative” type], given the fact that the governments in these countries work closely with businesses and corporations in providing social insurance and pension schemes; the result is a high degree of stratification among occupations and between the employed and the non-employed.

The reason for this was the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, after which Korea underwent a revolutionary shift from having the most job for life, male breadwinner, “salarymen” in the world to having the most part-time and irregular workers in the OECD, as well as having one of the highest rates of self-employment. The important distinction is that those fortunate enough to secure “regular” jobs in large corporations make much more money and have far more fringe benefits than everyone else (hence all that money spent on children’s education; going to the right schools and universities is a must to secure such jobs). Also, as you can imagine, women make up most of the irregular workers.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.

Continuing:

Our findings suggest that cultural norms interact with institutional contexts to affect the gender convergence in time use, and gender relations might settle at differing levels of egalitarianism. Furthermore, policies relying on family ties and women’s traditional gender responsibility for care provision, as in the case of Japan, Korea, and Southern European countries, will hinder progress in gender equality.

And today I learned:

In Japan and Korea, the gender gaps in paid and unpaid work time are large but the gap in total work time is relatively small; the gender convergence in paid and unpaid work time has been extremely slow and has even stalled.

Source: @BreeNewsome

Finally:

These findings reveal that policies relying on families as a key source of care provision, including those of Southern European countries, Japan, and Korea, prevent women from increasing labor market work and reducing their share of domestic labor. In addition, the persistently long work hours in Japan and Korea have created barriers for men to committing time in domestic work.

And yet, even if you can’t change the long working hours, the universal male military conscription, the general homosociality of Korean life, and so depressingly on overnight, something that can be put in motion is a clear, explicit, widespread government campaign at raising awareness about that graph, following by loud, well-publicized efforts at removing the outdated gender roles and stereotypes from our daily lives that sustain them.

This may sound somewhat naive, and certainly isn’t a magic bullet. Of course, various initiatives of this nature have already been going on for decades too. However, deepening them and enlarging their scope would be still relatively cheap, and uncontroversial. Moreover, given the direct correlation between fathers’ share of housework and childcare to the birthrate, what’s to lose for governments that have already spent billions on trying to raise the latter, to little effect?

Indeed, if as a selection of books recently reviewed in the Atlantic show, “social and political shifts are usually the result of sustained, unseen work,” then there is still far more that needs to be done before those shifts become visible:

Source: Wikitree via Naver.

For instance, when translating foreign language programs and films into Korean subtitles, government-television broadcasters shouldn’t be allowed to depict women usually using honorific speech (존댓말) to men and men usually informal language (반말) to women, an extremely common practice that is done regardless of the status of the characters and despite no such distinctions being made in the original language. (It was even done in The Return of Superman to BBC Dad and his wife here in Busan.) Likewise, private broadcasters who do should also be named and shamed.

In case it’s not immediately clear why, pop culture gatekeepers’ dogged determination in making sure that one sex is always portrayed as higher status than the other, is not exactly a good basis upon which to discuss a more egalitarian division of home responsibilities. A clear commitment by policymakers to do away with this practice then, would surely be helpful. Likewise, and finally, also a commitment to use gender neutral terms concerning childcare and housework standard practice for all government departments’ communications with the public. Because again, what possible harm could it do?

Source: YouTube.

I’ve written about this before, most recently in 2019 about a new term for stroller that removes the notion that it’s a mother that should be pushing it. Sadly however, I’ve yet to encounter that new term personally, as An Hyae-min also laments in their April 24 “Mabu News” column for SBS News. Some excerpts to finish with:

우리나라의 성차별 언어는 얼마나 될까요? 한국어는 독일어와 프랑스어처럼 성별이 박혀있는 언어보다는 상대적으로 성중립적이기 쉬운 언어 구조를 가지고 있습니다. 하지만 그럼에도 불구하고 한국어 곳곳에서 성차별적 언어를 어렵지 않게 발견할 수 있어요. 2018년 여성가족부가 조사한 <일상 속 성차별 언어 표현 현황 연구> 결과를 보면, 성차별 언어 표현을 한 번이라도 접해본 사람의 비율은 응답자의 90%가 넘는 수치를 기록했습니다. 특히 성역할에 관한 차별 표현이 91.1%로 가장 많았어요. 여성을 지칭할 때만 ‘여’ 자를 따로 붙이는 ‘여배우’, ‘여의사’, ‘여경’ 같은 단어들이 그런 예가 되겠죠.

“How sexist is the Korean language? Actually, Korean tends to be relatively gender-neutral compared to gender-studded languages ​​like German and French. Yet despite this, you can easily find many sexist terms in Korean. According to the results of a study conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2018 on the status of sexist language expression in daily life, the proportion of people who have encountered sexist language at least once a day was recorded by more than 90% of the respondents. In particular, the expression of discrimination regarding gender roles was the highest at 91.1%. Examples of such words would be ‘actress’, ‘female doctor’, and ‘female police officer’, where the reference to the person’s sex is used only when referring to women who perform those roles [not the ‘default’ of men who do].” (Source, right: Geoffrey Fairchild; CC BY 2.0)

가족 호칭에서도 남편 쪽의 친척에게는 ‘도련님’, ‘아가씨’로 높여 부르지만 아내 쪽은 ‘처남’, ‘처제’로 부르고 있죠. 남성과 여성을 병렬적으로 배치할 경우에 ‘남녀노소’, ‘아들딸’, ‘남녀공학’ 등 남성이 먼저 위치하지만 비하하는 표현을 사용할 땐 ‘연놈’과 같이 여성을 지칭하는 말이 먼저 오기도 하고요. 심지어 여성이 앞에 와 있는 Ladies and Gentlemen을 ‘신사숙녀 여러분’으로 뒤바꿔 번역하기도 하죠.

“Even in family titles, relatives on the husband’s side are called ‘bachelor’ and ‘agassi/unmarried woman‘, but on the wife’s side they are called ‘brother-in-law’ and ‘sister-in-law’. Also, when men and women are placed in parallel in a neutral term, men are mentioned first, such as in ‘man and woman’, ‘son and daughter’, and ‘co-education’—even the English ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ is reversed in Korean. But when using derogatory combined expressions, words referring to the women come first, such as in ‘Yeonnom.'”

● 유모차 → 유아차
: 여성(母)만 포함되어있는 단어로 평등육아 개념과 맞지 않음. 아이가 중심이 되는 유아차가 성중립 언어라고 할 수 있음.

● 스포츠맨십 → 스포츠정신
: 스포츠를 하는 누구나 가져야 하는 스포츠정신에 남성(man)만 포함되어있는 단어는 성평등에 어긋남.

● 자매결연 → 상호결연
: 상호 간의 관계 형성의 사회적 의미를 ‘자매’라는 여성적 관계로 표현. 여성에 대한 인격적 편향성을 높일 수 있다는 점에서 차별적 표현

● Stroller → Baby Car: A word that contains only women (母) does not fit the concept of equal parenting. A child-centered infant car can be said to be a gender-neutral language.

● Sportsmanship → Sports spirit : A word that contains only men in the spirit of sports that everyone who plays sports should have is against gender equality.

● Sisterhood relationship → Mutual relationship : Expressing the social meaning of mutual relationship formation as a feminine relationship called ‘sister’. Discriminatory expression in that it can increase personal bias toward women

이러한 성차별적 표현을 바꾸기 위한 노력은 곳곳에서 보입니다. 위에 정리해 둔 건 서울시 여성가족재단에서 2018년부터 진행하고 있는 성평등 언어 사전의 일부 내용들이에요. 서울시에선 시민들과 함께 성중립 언어 개선안을 만들어서 공표하고 있죠. 국립국어원에서는 가족 호칭에 대해서 아내 쪽 친척을 남편 쪽 친척의 호칭처럼 ~님으로 부르는 방식을 권고하기도 했어요.

“Efforts to change these sexist expressions are everywhere. Listed above are some of the contents of the Gender Equality Language Dictionary, which the Seoul Gender Equality and Family Foundation has been running since 2018. The Seoul Metropolitan Government is working with citizens to create and announce a gender-neutral language improvement plan. The National Institute of the Korean Language also recommended that relatives on the wife’s side be called with the honorific ‘nim’, just like relatives on the husband’s side.”

가장 보수적인 언어가 통용되는 법령 용어에서도 성차별적 언어 표현을 성중립 언어로 대체하고 있습니다. 법 조문에는 여전히 ‘미망인’과 같이 성차별적 표현이 있거든요. 이를 바꿔보려고 한국법제연구원이 법률을 전수 조사해서 차별 언어를 검토하기도 했습니다. 지난달엔 법무부 디지털 성범죄 전문위원회에서 ‘성적 수치심’이라는 단어를 성 중립적 용어로 변경하라고 권고한 일도 있었고요.

“Even in statutory terminology, which is used in the most conservative languages, sexist language is being replaced by gender-neutral language. There are still sexist expressions such as ‘widow’ in the law. To change this, the Korea Legislative Research Institute conducted a full investigation of the law to examine the language of discrimination. Last month, the Ministry of Justice’s Digital Sex Crimes Committee recommended that the word ‘sexual shame’ be changed to a gender-neutral term.”

Korean Sociological Image #61: Stereotypical Gender Roles in Pororo

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

How Korean Celebrity, Gender, and Advertising Intersect—Some Quick Key Points

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

But first, let me extend my warm thanks to Professor CedarBough Saeji (a.k.a. @TheKpopProf) for her invitation to talk on this topic to her class last week. Next, to her students also for their many interesting questions and observations, given to me both in person and as they live-tweeted the event!

As there were too many tweets to respond to individually afterwards however, and because most were related to some key points I’d ended up having to rush over because I’d wasted far too much time showing videos of time constraints, I decided to clarify them in a long thread instead. Please click to read, and, because the more in the discussion the merrier, please feel free to respond yourself, either on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Finally, seeing as we’re on the subject of talks, let me also remind everyone that if you too would like me to give one to your own class or organization, whether in person or via Zoom, then I’ll probably jump at the chance if our schedules work out. So please get in touch! :)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)