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

(Source: unknown)

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

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

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

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

(Source: unknown)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Korean Gender Reader

supposedly-fat-kim-yu-bin-김유빈(Source: 원더풀홀릭)

1. God Moves in Mysterious Ways

My opinions on the marketing of teenage girl groups like the Wondergirls (원더걸스) have become much more nuanced since I wrote controversial posts like this and this a year ago, although regardless of my criticisms I never had anything against any of the groups or the singers themselves. And good on Kim Yu-bin (김유빈) above for standing up to the netizens who can’t tell the difference between turning “fat” and turning into a woman.

2. Korea Drops from 64th to 68th in its Gender Empowerment Measure

Probably the most stunning indictment of Korea’s gender relations, it’s worth quoting this Hankyoreh report in full for those of you who haven’t heard of the GEM before:

South Korea fell further out of the mid-low range last year compared to other world nations in women’s rights, a report shows.

According to [2008 data] released Monday, calculated by the United Nations Development Programme for over 100 world nations, South Korea earned a score of 0.54, falling four spaces to 68th from its 2007 ranking of 64th.

The GEM is an indicator of women’s degree of participation in political and economic activity and the policy-making process, using for its evaluation factors such as the number of female legislators, the percentage of women in senior official and managerial positions, the percentage of women in professional and technical positions, and the income differential between men and women. A value closer to 1 indicates a higher level of empowerment.

In the first set of GEM calculations released in 1995, South Korea ranked 90th out of 116 countries, but its ranking gradually rose after that, reaching 68th in 2004, 59th in 2005 and 53rd in 2006. But its ranking fell once again in 2007, as it fell considerably compared to the overall average for nations assessed in areas such as percentage of female legislators and female professionals.

Like Michael Hurt pointed out back in 2006, these figures need to be placed in the context of Korea’s ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI), which combines things like life expectancy and education levels. Roughly speaking, the more developed and better a country is to live in the higher its HDI ranking will be, and usually its GEM will be pretty similar too. But then look at these (click for a much larger version):

south-korea-2008-gender-empowerment-measure-gem-ranking-by-human-development-index-hdi(Source: UNData)

In brief, of the best 25 countries in the world to live in, only 4 are not also among the best 25 countries in terms of women’s rights and levels of economic and political power: Greece on 26, Israel on 29, Japan on 58, and finally Korea on 68. Put another way, women will certainly have a good quality of life in Korea, but they have less chance of becoming a politician or even a middle-manager or computer programmer than in:

  • 59 Kyrgyzstan,
  • 60 the Dominican Republic,
  • 61 the Philippines,
  • 62 Vietnam,
  • 63 Moldova,
  • 64 Botswana,
  • 65 the Russian Federation,
  • 66 Uruguay,


  • 67 Nicaragua, the HDI of which was 120th(!) out of 179 countries surveyed.

In fairness though, Korea has actually improved in absolute if not relative terms:

In South Korea last year, women accounted for 13.7 percent of legislators, 8.0 percent of administrative and managerial positions and 40 percent of professional and technical positions, while the ratio of female to male income was 0.52.

The overall percentage improved from 2007, but South Korea was pushed down in the rankings through an overall improvement in gender empowerment among other nations examined. The overall average values for the nations studied were 19 percent for the percentage of female legislators, 29 percent for women in administrative and managerial positions, and 48 percent for women in professional and technical positions.

True, the gap between Japan’s HDI and GEM is also so high, and I can’t blame Korea’s low GEM ranking almost entirely on military conscription in this series but also regularly claim deep economic and social similarities between the two countries in other posts. While I do eventually plan to start covering gender issues in at least Japan and Taiwan though, until then I’d strongly caution against looking for easy explanations such as shared Neo-Confucianism, as Singapore’s HDI is 28 but it’s GEM 15(!), and China’s 94 and 72 respectively for instance (unfortunately there are no separate figures for Hong Kong, or for non-member state Taiwan). Moreover, China’s comparatively good GEM score is not due to the number of women in state-owned enterprises, as they almost always held lower, non-advancing positions within them and were the first to go when they were privatized, wound down, or restructured (but it may account for Vietnam’s relatively good one though).

caucasian-and-korean-lingerie-models3. Korean Lingerie Models too Embarrassed to Show Their Faces?

As long-term readers of this blog will know, the main reason that there are so few Korean women in lingerie advertisements is because many Korean porn stars have done so in the past, giving the industry a dirty reputation, although stereotypes of Caucasians’ more liberal sexuality and their role as signifiers of “developed country status” certainly also play a part.

FeetmanSeoul argues that this accounts for Korean models’ virtual disguises(!) at Levi’s “Best Body” fashion show in Myeongdong last week (source, right), although it may well have been the choice of organizers rather than the models themselves.

4. Korea’s Double-Standards Still Devastating for Female Celebrities

As I explain here, it’s still open to debate whether singer Baek Ji-young (백지영) has successfully salvaged her reputation after a sex video scandal in 2000, but another case that deserves to be far better known is that of Ivy (아이비), for whom simply the threat of the release of a similar video was enough to derail her career in 2007. On top of that, despite the trivial fact that the video didn’t actually exist, and that her ex-boyfriend was ultimately sent to jail for making the threat, she was sued by various companies she modeled for and endorsed because of the “damage to their reputations.”

Unfortunately, she is still considered beyond the pale. As PopSeoul! explains, songs originally written for her are now being used by other singers instead.

5. Sexual Violence

  • It’s good that the drunken executives that harassed a 19 year-old student were arrested, but not that she accepted monetary compensation from them rather than pressing charges. As for why this is a feature of the Korean justice system, see here.
  • One of the five teenagers that drugged and raped a 16 year-old in Suncheon is a student at one of Brian in Jeollanamdo’s schools. Make sure to ask him for follow-up details.
  • The Supreme Court upheld a 10 year sentence on Jesus Morning Star cult leader Jung Myung-suk for the sexual abuse of five Korean followers between 2003 and 2006.
  • On Wednesday serial killer Kang Ho-soon was sentenced to death for the murder of a total of 10 women, including his wife and mother-in-law. See here and #5 here for more details.

6. That Movie Poster

Yes, for the movie Ogamdo (오감도, source), apparently causing quite some controversy with it’s depiction of a women’s naked buttocks (a first?), but really quite predictable given things like this (see #1) and this. ogamdo-오감도For more on the movie itself see here (including details on the owner of said buttocks), and there’s a nice…er…meaty discussion at KoreaBeat too.

7. Anti-Miss Korea Festival

Held at Seoul University on Saturday, and now in its tenth year, bizarrely there appears to be a great deal of information on it available in English, particularly in Australian newspapers (maybe this has something to do with that?) but virtually none in Korean, at least for this year’s event! As Australian newspapers are unlikely to report on how it went though, then I’ll keep looking for “안티미스코리아대회” on Naver, but in the meantime you might find this journal article about the 2000-2001 Drama Viva Women (여자만세) that it inspired interesting.

8. The Differences Between How Koreans and Westerners Perceive and Discuss Appearance

What is said to you and about you by Koreans often shouldn’t be taken at face value, but on the other hand is invariably very blunt, and this habit can take a great deal of getting used to. For a big discussion on how to navigate this cultural minefield, see The Hub of Sparkle here.

9. Monsters-in-Law

A Korean take on domineering mothers-in-law. For the religious/ethical and demographic reasons for why it’s no generalization to say that they’re much worse than their Western counterparts, see here and here respectively.

10. Welcome, Brides, But…

A good recent summary of the problems faced by migrant brides, although I concur with J. Scott Burgeson’s criticism of the author as being unable to ‘transcend the “pure-blood” ideology she claims to critique.”