What happened to the many female students?
Dated: 28 November 2016
Before I have started my career, I didn’t particularly define myself as a ‘feminist’ or someone who has gender sensitivity, although I have been a woman for 30 years. I had thought that gender equality is something very natural such as oxygen in the air and took it for granted. I also secretly labeled people who raise gender inequality issues as troublemakers; because I assumed that in my country (Republic of Korea) that absurdity “does not exist”.
I have been working in World Vision Mongolia as a volunteer since April this year, and therefore have an opportunity to compare working environments between in the Republic of Korea and Mongolia, particularly female workers in the non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector. In many ways, this comparison deepens my thoughts as to my identity as a woman, and I’ve started to seriously ponder gender issue in Korea as well.
The very first thing that surprised me when I arrived in the office of World Vision Mongolia was the number of female staffs. Female staffs are dominating the office number wise. But the sheer volume of female staffs is not what made me really surprised. The dominance of female staffs in NGOs and the development sector is a common phenomenon in the Republic of Korea as well (and I guess entire world). What truly made me amazed is the age group of female staff and the quality of their labour environment. More than 50 percent of my female colleagues are at least in their 40s, while, in Korea, most of female workers in the NGO sector that I encountered were in their 20s and 30s. There are various reasons behind this, but I reckon that one of them is a tendency for the withdrawal of women who married or were pregnant. They ‘naturally’ fade away from their workplace, because women’s prioritisation of house and families (I am intentionally using the plural because they also have to take care of their in-laws) still is treated as a social norm and even a ‘virtue’ in Korea.
The second difference I noticed is that there are considerable number of female workers who play a role in decision-making in Mongolia. I’ve never seen such number of female management staffs in my whole life. Women in my office are not only working as entry level staffs, but also working at director- level as well. Given my working experience in Korea, the majority of management and senior level positions tend to be occupied by males, even in the development sector.
The last contrast that I noticed was the quality of maternity leave. There is of course maternity leave in Korea as well, however things such as One-Year maternity leave, which women in World Vision Mongolia have enjoyed, is almost impossible. In private sector, in particular small-to-medium sized firms are infamous for their uncooperative attitude towards maternity leave.
I wish desperately I could say that my observation is completely biased. Unfortunately, various gender-related indices and surveys support my comparison. According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2016 produced by the World Economic Forum, Korea ranks 116th (of 144 countries) in closing gender gap, while Mongolia ranks 58th. More shockingly Gender Gap Index of Korea has been deteriorated in the last ten years, as in 2006 Korea ranked 92nd. Specifically, the contrast between these two countries, in economic and workforce participation is significant. Korea ranks 123rd in overall female economic participation, while Mongolia ranks 23rd. Moreover, a recent survey, done by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family reveals the difficulty of using maternity leave. 7-out-of-10 people said they cannot use maternity leave with ease in the workplace, due to the reluctance of their employers.
Korean women, especially in my generation and younger, are treated fairly when we are educated. We barely experience gender inequality in our school and, more girls go to university than boys. That is why, I am baffled by the shrinkage of female workforces in my country. What happened to those female students? I partly know the answer, to be honest, whether I like it or not. I have friends who experienced sexual harassment by their boss who gave them lame excuses such as it was their way of “expressing fondness’”. And one of my senior male bosses boldly told me that he didn’t want to extend my contract because ‘I am wearing nice suit’ (Please don’t demand an explanation on this comment, because I still can’t fathom of it!). I’d like to point out that the male chauvinistic labour environment in Korea contributes to these intolerable behaviours in the first place. My friends and I just want to be a decent and able worker in the workplace, without experiencing any forms of intimidation and discrimination. Often I feel that that my society is pushing me to become a fighter or activist, rather than an ordinary worker.
Despite this hardship, I believe that my country is in the process of closing gender gap. Compared to the past generation, we have definitely progress, such as women’s involvement in tertiary education. Maybe it is the role of my generation to expand gender equality in other spheres of society. So, what should I do? I think I can start from the very small step: by committing myself to my work, I am contributing to the gender equality of my country.
Bitna Chu is a Korea International Cooperation Agency(KOICA) volunteer, and working in World Vision Mongolia at the moment. She holds MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She is pursuing her passion for livelihood support and humanitarian aid.