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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The Korean Word for “Stroller” is Literally “Milk-MOTHER-Vehicle.” Let’s Start Using This New Term That Includes Fathers Too.

Like or loathe political correctness, many everyday Korean terms are ripe for modernization.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube.

Similar to how over 60 percent of English words have Latin and Greek roots, over half of all Korean words are of Chinese origin. Once you realize this, learning Korean vocabulary becomes immeasurably easier. Buy this book in particular, which groups Korean words by their Chinese roots, and it’ll feel like all your Christmases have come at once:

From pages 78 & 102 of Miho Choo and William O’ Grady, Handbook of Korean Vocabulary: A Resource for Word Recognition and Comprehension, 1996.

You may become so grateful for all these new connections between words suddenly being revealed to you though, that it’s easy to overlook how problematic some of them may be. To many native speakers too, for whom the words are so familiar that they would have little cause to think twice about their origins.

One such Chinese derivative is “모/母“,  as shown in my scan above-left. Clearly, it is apt for almost all of those examples of its usage given there, and a much better Korean-speaker than I points out that it even makes some sense for the seeming exception of “모음/vowel” too. Learn that it’s also contained in the absent “유모차” (pron. yoo-mo-cha) however, which means “stroller” (N. Am.) or “pushchair/buggy” (U.K.), and suddenly that ancient Chinese root really begins to feel its age.

This video suggests adopting a much more inclusive alternative:

In the first screenshot below, the top line says “stroller,” followed by the corresponding Chinese characters for “milk,” “mother,” and “vehicle.” (Possibly, “breastmilk” may be more appropriate for the first character?) Below those, a definition: “A wagon for carrying a child after it is born.”

These next two are self-explanatory:

“[Because of this], does ‘stroller’ have a sexually discriminatory meaning?”

“Does the person who pushes the stroller absolutely have to be the mother?”

“Other caregivers can push it, yet the meaning of ‘mother’ is still contained within the word. Does this imply the person responsible for childcare is the mother?”

“Let’s not focus on the person pushing the stroller, and focus on the child instead. Please call it ‘유아차’ (pron. yoo-a-cha).”

And FYI, here’s that Chinese character for “child,” from page 149 of The Handbook:

Anyone reading this far needs no reminding of Korea’s plummeting birthrates, or of the gendered stereotypes surrounding childcare that work against remedying those—a mere new word is no solution. But it is logical, inoffensive, easy to remember, and can’t help but work at least a little against those stereotypes. So why not use it?

Naturally then, the YouTube video has many more dislikes than likes. Its origins are suprisingly opaque for a public campaign too (“공공언이 바꾸기 캠페인,” or the “Campaign to change how we speak to other members of the community”) and for a long time my searches only brought screenshots of that video and of various others’ in the campaign, on sites of the sort where things are generally only posted to be ridiculed. The video does end with a note that the campaign was done in conjunction with the Seoul City Government however (or possibly “by”; “함께” can vary according to context sorry), and eventually I realized I’d be able to find the video and others on non-gendered, but still problematic words in the campaign on their website itself, which indeed were posted there in October and September 2018 respectively. But there was still no news or further information available.

With such abysmal promotion, frankly you have to wonder why the Seoul City Government even bothered making them.

But in the process of looking, I was reminded of the Gender Equality Week conducted by the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family conducted that July:

Which I’m happy to say did receive a lot of press. Quite possibly, the the Seoul City Government’s campaign was actually one of those efforts alluded to at the end of the press release above (but which didn’t get any mention on the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family’s website either!):

Either way, it was added to by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s awareness video in January this year. Possibly that explains the stroller video’s abrupt appearance on the MBC YouTube channel that same month (used in this post):

From my own experience, using gender-neutral words takes minimal effort, once you make the conscious decision to. That said, I do understand the laziness in not doing so, and the resistance against being told what to do. If you meet such a person then, perhaps start by asking them, say, why “uterus” should be “자궁” (pron. ja-goong) which literally means “子宮/house for a son,” instead of the suggested “포궁” (pron. po-goong), which means ” 細宮/house for a cell/baby.” Once they realize how much work defending that absurdity would be, then surely they’ll realize all the other sexist, archaic words aren’t really worth the effort either!

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I Read a Book: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014)

Good Chinese Wife CoverLet me be honest: Good Chinese Wife is not something I would normally read.

Susan’s ex-husband was Chinese; my wife is Korean. Susan’s relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years, and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child, and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex, and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.

I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog (see here for many more bloggers’ reviews). But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.

I was dead wrong, on both counts.

Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Susan is doing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then in her early-twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts tutoring him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Susan. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”

This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China is still not at all like in the West, nor even Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities, “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive Behind the Red Door Sex in Chinarelationship, and that marriage might be on the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting her to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9 respectively).

So, I understood Cai. And, being head-over-heels ever since they’d met, why Susan quickly accepted his proposal, before so much as a kiss—it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is also a definite charm, especially for someone who likewise fell very easily in love at that age.

But that’s only 36 pages into the book. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with Susan’s rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence towards her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that she’s doomed to fail.

In an interview, Susan says her problems were more because “He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise many happily-married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)

I disagree. From Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Susan to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom, to his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), most of Susan’s later issues with Cai could have been discovered if they’d spent (much) more time together before the wedding day—and/or resolved if an expensive wedding wasn’t already looming over them.

Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one that will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Susan’s expectations to conform to man yue, the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month—it mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. Her avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.

That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers, to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from such wildly different backgrounds, and bring such different expectations into marriage? Susan’s experience teaches readers that for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Good Chinese Wife back cover

One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Susan’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but did it lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.

The verdict? Good Chinese Wife is well worth the US$14.99 cover price (16,410 won at What the Book), and a definite eye-opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options for reading about Korean ones specifically. Please do leave your suggestions (and reviewer copies!) for more like it, and/or for blogs.

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)

From the Archives: Bagel Girls, Banking, and Babies!

(Source)

…[the character of] Chi-Yong’s mother sees marriage as a way to achieve social advancement and material prosperity, as it was in the Victorian era. These ambitions have come to the forefront in Korea since the 1970s, due to rapid economic development and consequent aspirations to class mobility and consolidation during the last thirty years. This novel [Marriage/결혼 by Kim Su-hyeon, 1993] is a good illustration of how, given the pace of change of change in Korea, everybody has a different point of view on marriage, depending on their gender, class, and generation. The issue of communication across generations has become a serious matter. Generation is an important attribute of identity in Korea, like race in the United States. (My emphases.)

(So-hee Lee, “The Concept of Female Sexuality in Popular Culture” in Under Construction: The gendering of modernity, class, and consumption in the Republic of Korea, ed. by Laurel Kendell, 2002; page 146 of 141-164)

With apologies to So-hee Lee for variously attributing that quote to either her editor, to Hyun-Mee Kim, or to Nancy Abelmann over the years, it still very much applies 10 years later. It’s also why studying and living in Korean society can be so exciting sometimes.

For someone who’s been writing about the place for over 5 years though, it means that many of my posts need updating. Let alone mercifully deleted as reader feedback, further research, and greater use of Korean sources have exposed gaping holes in my knowledge and confident preconceptions. And from a practical standpoint too, links will die, embedded videos will get deleted, and my theme will always highlight recent posts at the expense of older ones, no matter how good they may be after going through my culling process.

With all that in mind, once a month I’ll be highlighting posts from the corresponding month in previous years. Not all of them of course (hey, I’ll still like some material to work with in September 2013 and 2014), and to some there’s no new news to add; I include them just to draw attention to for new and old readers, especially as they’ve since been slightly edited for this post with the benefit of several year’s of hindsight. Others though, I’m adding a great deal of new news and commentary below, as you’ll see.

Please let me know what you think!

2011

Alas, not really my own article, but about Grace Duggan’s for Bust Magazine. While I’d often criticized the body-labeling craze in South Korea previously, I didn’t realize just how offensive this particular term was until she pointed it out (source, right):

Sexualizing young women for having childlike features sets off all kinds of alarms, regardless of whether or not they are over 18. The “bagel girl” label does more than infantilize women. It compartmentalizes them by applying two irreconcilable ideals: looking like a baby and a full-grown woman at the same time.

Granted, that may make it sound no more harmful than any other “line.” But, as I explain in a later comment, in the context of how it’s actually used it ends up sounding almost pedophilic:

…there’s nothing wrong with looking young per se.

But consider who the label is applied to: not, say, women in their 30s and 40s and older, for whom – let’s be real – wanting to look younger than they are is understandable (hell, for a 35 year-old guy like me too), but rather it’s women barely on the threshold of adulthood that are being praised for looking like children. And, not to put too fine a point on it, what the FUCK is great about a 21 year-old looking younger than she is? And when her body is simultaneously praised for being developed? That is a seriously flawed ideal to aspire to, and, moreover – as I hint at in the post – it’s no coincidence that it occurs in an environment with strong expectations of childish behavior from women too. Indeed, the end result strongly reminds me of child and teenage female manga characters, with personalities appropriate for their age, but somehow the sex drives and physiological development to act on them of women 10-15 years older.

(Source)

Meanwhile, by coincidence just yesterday I finished the excellent An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality by Jill Fields (2007), which explains how the word “glamour” — where the “gul/글” in Bagel Girl comes from — came to be closely associated with large breasts by Hollywood in the 1930s to 1950s. Something I’d previously chalked up to a Japanese and then Korean mistranslation of the word, see the above pages for more on that, or all of Chapter 3 on brassieres at Google Books here.

If I do say so myself, I’m very proud of the way I describe my feelings when child singers do aegyo:

…cutesy aegyo is bad enough coming from a 21 year-old singer, but simply surreal when you see it done by a 14 year-old.

Yes, surreal, not merely awkward and inexperienced: essentially, you’re watching a child pretending to be an adult pretending to be a child.

Thank you very much.

Thanks again to the (necessarily anonymous) reader who wrote about her experiences, and I’ve had dozens of inquires about the Seoul clinic she used since. Please just email me if you ever need to know the details yourself.

(Source)

2010

Once someone points out the “head cant” to you, it just can’t be unseen. Usually inoffensive in itself though, and frequently done simply for photographic and stylistic reasons (which I’ve under-acknowledged in the past), it’s the fact that it’s overwhelmingly women it that makes it problematic. Just one of a number of typical poses for women in ads, ultimately it serves to reinforce gender stereotypes.

Probably, that’s why these recent Giordano ads stood out to me: in the example above for instance, Shin Min-a (신민아) is the one in control, staring at the viewer, while So Ji-sub (소지섭) is distracted (it’s usually the guys that are presented as more focused). And, desperately seeking examples of pro-feminist advertisements for a TED presentation I may be giving next month, in which I have to — grrr — conclude with a positive message rather than just criticize, this made me realize that feminists and advertisers don’t necessarily have to be at odds with each other. Just a sense of balance by the latter would be a huge step forward.

Really about “lewd” advertisements, 2 years later (this June) I translated another article about how their numbers had surged 3 times over the previous 12 months. With no apparent sense of irony, just about every news site that reported on that had so many examples themselves that the text was difficult to read.

One of my most popular posts, anybody (especially men) who thinks street harassment isn’t a problem should just reflect on the opening cartoon, let alone female readers’ comments about their own negative experiences.

(Source: unknown)

2009

A short, harmless commercial for Shinhan Bank at first glance. But, once you take the time to analyze it, it has a clear message that men do the thinking at Shinhan while the women simply look good. Indeed, it’s such a classic example of gender stereotyping that I’m still using it in presentations today.

Here’s the slide I would present after providing that analysis:

But in the next presentation, I’ll be updating it with the recent news that the banking industry still has the largest gender pay gap in Korea, with women making an average of only 57% of what men make.

Not that I’m against skin by any means. But these remain very sweet ads!

Again one of my most popular posts, ironically soon after writing it trends in the Korean entertainment and music industries meant that Koreans would replace Caucasians in many of the modelling roles that sustained those Occidentalist stereotypes. Also, in my own (admittedly limited) experience, there’s far fewer Korean male – Western (invariably Caucasian) female pairings in popular culture now, after a spate of them in the years after Misuda first appeared. (There were never very many of the opposite.)

However, of course many of the stereotypes still do remain.

(Sources: left, right)

2008

When I read on Yahoo! Korea this week about pregnant Hollywood star’s “D-lines”, for a moment I did try to hold my tongue about seeing the label.

After all, this, for example, is just an advertisement for an event for expecting mothers (albeit one where likely body-shaping products are promoted); these D-line fashion shows were surely perfectly harmless; many of those Hollywood stars were indeed glowing, as was pregnant Moon So-ri (문소리) in Cosmopolitan last year; and finally, yes, I can see the humorous side — it is often applied to extremely obese men.

But although the Western media too promotes pampered celebrity mothers-to-be as ideals to follow, and I can certainly accept that pregnant women overseas may likewise feel under some indirect pressure to watch their weight, that post is about how pregnant Korean women were dieting as early as the late-1990s. One can only shudder at what things are probably like now.

Suddenly, talk of D-lines sounds a lot less funny.

One of my first attempts to grapple with the origins of the kkotminam phenomenon (꽃미남; lit. flower-beauty-man), which culminated in this piece by friend and ANU professor Roald Maliangkay 2 years later.

By coincidence, both of us will be quoted in a related news article to be published next week. Watch this space! (Update: and here it is!)

2007

And indeed there was. Unfortunately however, attitudes didn’t change with it, so fathers feel compelled by management to either ignore it entirely or to come back to work early, despite it only being 3 days (source right: unknown).

Note though, that the “paternity leave” in the original article I translated was a bit of a misnomer, it really meaning time off for a child’s birth. “Real,” paid paternity leave has been available since 2001 (or possibly 1995), but sources vary on specifics. Sung So-young in the Korean Joongang Daily, for instance, wrote in April 2011 that:

According to Korean law, all employees with a child under the age of 3 are eligible to take a year off to care for their children. Up to 1 million won ($919) in salary is provided monthly.”

But that is contradicted by a slightly later report in the Chosun Ilbo, which states that:

…those on leave can get up to 40 percent of their salary, or a minimum of W500,000 and a maximum of W1 million, and parents can take leave until the child is 6 years old.

And both in turn are contradicted by Lee Hyo-sik’s earlier report in the March 4 2011 Korea Times, which says:

Regardless of income levels, both male and female salaried workers are currently given 500,000 won per month during parental leave. This is expected to go up to one million won next year.

As for the maximum age of the children in order to be eligible, the same article states that it was 6 rather than 3. This is confirmed by an earlier February 2010 article by Kwon Mee-yoo, again in the Korea Times, which stated:

The Ministry of Labor passed a revision on Wednesday to the Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation, or the Employment Equity Act for short, which will expand the range of workers eligible for parental leave. Now parents with preschoolers under six years old can benefit.

The leave allows employees to take a certain number of paid days off from work to care for their children. The parents can also take unpaid leave if they use up all of their paid days. This includes maternity, paternity and adoption leave. Currently, at private firms only workers with children 3 years old or less qualify for the leave.

Surprisingly, parents with adopted children weren’t eligible before this revision, and still, “only those who gave birth to or adopted children after Jan. 1, 2008 [were to be allowed] parental leave,” despite those (then) 2 to 6 year-olds obviously being of age. Which all sounds very tight-fisted, although logical during the worst of the financial crisis.

Kwon Mee-yoo also notes that it was in 2008 that the government increased the age restriction for (only) public servants, allowing them “to take time off for parental purposes if their children were under 6 years old.” I’ll assume that it previously only applied if their children were under 3 years old, like Kwon notes was the case for employees at private firms.

Finally, quibbles over details aside, Sung So-young’s and Lee Hyo-sik’s articles in particular remain excellent discussions of why Korean fathers are forced to avoid taking paternity leave, despite wanting to spend much more time with their kids. Against that though, just like in most other countries there’s still a pervasive attitude that childcare is primarily women’s work, with insidious manifestations in our daily lives.

And on that note, have a good weekend, and the Korean Gender Reader post will be up on Sunday!

Korean Gender Reader

(Source)

If you’ll please indulge an old Korean Studies geek for a moment, Girlfriday’s review of Dancing Queen (댄싱퀸) at Dramabeans this week instantly reminded me of The Adventures of Mrs. Park (박봉곤 가출사건), from way back in 1996. After all, both are about wives who blatantly defy their husbands to follow their dreams of becoming singers, both are comedies, and – I’ll take a wild guess about Dancing Queen – both wives are ultimately successful.

One likely difference though, is that Mrs. Park runs away from her husband. And in fact, The Adventures of Mrs. Park was the first Korean movie to ever show a wife getting away with such insubordination.

That may sound difficult to believe today, but director Kim Tae-kyun (김태균) would later confess to Cine 21 magazine that he was extremely concerned at how audiences might react to such “an unexpected ending”. As even comedies back then would invariably close with continued happy marriages, while more realistic movies would show a miserable and destitute wife returning home with her tail between her legs.

In contrast, I doubt director Lee Seok-hoon (이석훈) has any such qualms in 2012. And it’s always quite sobering, realizing how much Korea has changed in the time I’ve been here.

So, while I doubt I’ll ever make the effort to track down and watch The Adventures of Miss Park for myself (all of the above is based on this book chapter), I will watch Dancing Queen. For not only is Hwang Jung-min (황정민) my favorite actor ever (see here for my review of A Good Lawyer’s Wife {바람난 가족; 2003}, the first movie I saw him in), but I’ve always had a soft spot for Uhm Jung-hwa (엄정화) too, as she was very much the queen of K-pop when I came to Korea back in 2000. Here’s my favorite song of hers from back then (just give me the word, and I’ll translate it in a flash!^^):

And after all that reminiscing(!), finally here are this week’s links, in no particular order:

What K-pop can teach us about the ROK military (Seoulbeats)

Foreigners organize flash mob against prostitution (The Marmot’s Hole)

‘Dream High 2′ cast express the need for laws protecting minors in the industry (Allkpop)

Sexual harassment widespread in workplaces (Hankyoreh)

Did the Piggy Dolls ruin their credibility? (Mixtapes and Liner Notes)

Essential information for understanding divorce in Japan: there is no such thing as joint custody of children (Economist)

How Korean fashion is seen from an international perspective; opposed to how Koreans think it’s seen (Noona Blog: Seoul)

K-pop’s first lesbian love story? (Seoulbeats)

Congratulations on the Dragon baby! (On Becoming a Good Korean {Feminist} Wife)

290,000won bags for elementary kids – competition at the extreme? (Hangukdrama and Korean; also see my post on how pink and princessey the schoolbag ads for girls are, but sporty and full of space-shuttles and racing-cars for boys)

[Debate] Leave ancestral rites where they belong- in the past (Hankyoreh)

[Debate] Cultural rites provide key to understanding ourselves (Hankyoreh)

• “Holiday stress for an average married Korean woman is as bad as the pain of losing a close friend” (Arirang)

Statistics on social trends in Korea – a great resource (Korean Journal of Sociology; scroll down to the “research guide”s)

Roundtable: our friend, MOGEF (Seoulbeats)

Harsher punishment urged for pedophiles (Korea Times)

Monfemme: gender, feminist, and medical anthropology in the steppes and deserts of Mongolia (Blog recommendation)