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

MORE Upcoming Zoom Lectures and Webinars You Should Totally Register for ASAP

Reading time: 4 minutes. Image source: Photo by Fausto García-Menéndez on Unsplash

Am really far too busy…must resist…but neither spirit…nor flesh…is willing…

So, let’s just make letting you know about interesting online presentations and webinars I’m attending a regular thing from now on.

In chronological order then, with the first one starting just tomorrow (hey, I only just found out about it myself!):

On Wednesday 23 November, 18:00-19:30 Korean Time / 10:00-11:30 CET, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism will host a live briefing for the release of the book Masculinity and Violent Extremism. More information and registration here:

Update: Here’s a recording of the webinar. One of the presenters, Professor Michael Flood, told me it’s going to be made into an open-access book soon too. I’ll keep you posted! :)

Next, on Tuesday 29 November, 12:00 Korean Time, Chuyun Oh (San Diego State Univ.) will give a talk about her book K-pop Dance: Fandoming on Social Media. More information and registration here and here:

Then on Friday 02 December, 09:00-10:00 Korean time / Thursday, December 1, 16:00-17:00 (Pacific), Hagen Koo will talk about his book Privilege and Anxiety: The Korean Middle Class in the Global Era. More information and registration here and here:

Finally, on Thursday and Friday, 08 and 09 December, 11:30-19:00 Korean time, 13:30-21:00 AEDT, the jam-packed Queering the Korean Wave: An International Symposium will be held, with multiple presentations spread over the two days. See here for more information and registration:

What are you waiting for? ;)

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

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

Upcoming Zoom Lectures You Should Totally Register for ASAP

Reading time: 3 minutes. Image source: Photo by Fausto García-Menéndez on Unsplash

It’s been a while, I know. Sorry. Please rest assured many posts are coming soon, and many more ideas are being worked on.

However, time and tide wait for no (wo)man. Nor, indeed, do the registration periods for Zoom lectures care much for what bloggers have got going on in their lives.

So, while of course I can’t post about every interesting-sounding Zoom lecture and webinar out there, I will always try to at least let you know about the ones I’m personally attending.

If you are able to make it to any of them, that’s just great, I hope you enjoy them, and please feel free to say hi in the private chat any time!

(But please do register soon!)

First up, at 9am Friday 11 November Korean time:

As described at the Stanford website (register):

In this talk, Hyunjoon Park will give a brief overview of how Korean families have changed over the last three decades in various family behaviors. Although the trends of falling marriage rates and rising divorce rates, along with the increase in the population living alone, are well known, less known is divergence in those family behaviors between the more and less educated. Tracing family changes differently for those at higher and lower ends of the educational hierarchy highlights growing educational differentials in family life. Compared to their college-educated counterparts, it is increasingly difficult for those without a college degree to form and maintain a family in Korea, making the Korean family a ‘luxury good.’

Next, literally as soon as that finishes, at 10am Friday 11 November Korean time:

As per the Facebook page of the SNU International Center of Korean Studies (register):

The International Center for Korean Studies of the Kyujanggak Institute is hosting a Book Talk series, introducing Dal Yong Jin’s Transnational Korean Cinema: Cultural Politics, Film Genres, and Digital Technologies.

Title: Transnational Korean Cinema: Cultural Politics, Film Genres, and Digital Technologies

Date: November 11 (Friday) 10:00 – 12:00 (Seoul)

Author: Dal Yong Jin (Simon Fraser University)

Moderator: Seok-kyeong Hong (Seoul National University)

Discussants: Jihoon Kim (Chung-Ang University), Chung-kang Kim (Hanyang University)

The event will be held online via Zoom. The link for Zoom meeting will be sent a day before the event after your registration is confirmed.

Please contact icks@snu.ac.kr (Tel. 02-880-9378) for more information.

Finally, at 10am Thursday 17 November Korean time:

Spurred by this review at The Japan Times, I read the book last December and thoroughly enjoyed it, rating it 5 out of 5. So please do be warned that if you click that link, you’ll doubtless end up ordering a copy too ;)

As for the webinar, USCDornsife explains (register):

Gabriele Koch is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Gabriele is a sociocultural anthropologist whose research focuses on the social meanings and consequences of care in contemporary Japan. Her first book, Healing Labor: Japanese Sex Work in the Gendered Economy (Stanford University Press, 2020), explores the relationship between how adult Japanese women working in Tokyo’s sex industry think about what sex is and the political-economic roles and possibilities that they imagine for themselves. The book examines how Japanese sex workers regard their services as a form of socially necessary care and highlights the gendered interdependencies and inequalities that shape women’s work in the Japanese economy more generally.

See you there!

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

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

ZOOM TALK: “Working Women and Young Industrial Warriors: Daily Life and Daily Work in 1940s Pusan,” Fri 7 October 7pm (EST)/Sat 8 October 1am (KST)

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Source: Institute for Korean Studies at Indiana University @Facebook.

(Please see the Institute for Korean Studies for further information, contact details, and registration link.)

From now on, I’ll be posting information here about every upcoming Zoom talk I’ll be attending personally. And this particular one, how could I not shout from the rooftops about it, despite its horrible hour? Not only is it a rare one for focusing on Busan, my home for two decades, but it also covers wartime Korea. Which in hindsight, is a period I’ve severely neglected, sandwiched as it were between the Modern Girls and New Women of the 1920s and 1930s and the birth of Modern Korea.

Meanwhile, for information about any further upcoming Korea and East Asia-related public Zoom talks, I have to recommend Pusan National University professor CedarBough Saeji, who makes a real effort to inform everyone about as many as she can through her Twitter account. To make sure you don’t miss out, please follow her there @TheKpopProf.

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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)