Can South Korea’s first female president fix the developed world’s worst gender gap?

December 19, 2012

Park Geun-hye, shown preparing to give a speech, has been elected as South Korea's first female president. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

The South Korean economic miracle really was one of the amazing stories of the 20th century. The small country limped into the 1960s poor and unfree, its disproportionately agrarian population earning an average of $100 per person, per year. Then, South Korea did in a few short decades what took centuries in Europe, transforming itself into one of the world's most educated and technologically advanced societies. Living standards and economic strength exploded from levels on par with sub-Saharan Africa to those of the world's most advanced societies. That miracle, as it's commonly called, is seen as both a model for much of the world and so particularly Korean that many economists still debate how it was even possible. 

But half of South Korean society has still not fully realized the country's gains: though women have full political rights, their place in Korean society is weak. The country's gender gap is the worst in the developed world, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.

This week, South Korea has elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, who just happens to be the daughter of the military dictator who oversaw South Korea's remarkable rise in the 1960s and '70s. Though Park was largely elected for her economic policies and her stance on North Korea, many observers in and outside her country are wondering whether she can complete her father's unfinished business and fully bring the South Korean miracle to the other half of the population.

South Korea places 108th in the world for gender equality, ranked between the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, according to the World Economic Forum's in-depth study on gender equality. That's actually a decrease from 92nd place in 2006. This is even more striking when you consider that the WEF scores South Korea quite highly on providing equal education and health care for women. The gap, it turns out, comes from a lack of political power within Seoul's famously boy's-club political culture and, to a greater extent, economic empowerment. The miracle still belongs to South Korea's men.

How difficult is South Korea's notoriously competitive business environment for women? The Atlantic's Derek Thompson recently looked at pay gaps around the world, and South Korea's was remarkable: Women without children earn about 13 percent less than men, a pay gap about twice as wide as America's. But that gap nearly quadruples if Korean women have children, at which point they earn an astounding 45 percent less than men. That means that a mother in South Korea makes barely more than half what her male counterpart makes. It's hardly surprising, then, that South Korean women have only 55 percent labor force participation, compared to 76 percent for men.

The subtext of this pay gap is pretty clear, and part of a larger issue that extends well beyond the workplace in South Korea: Women are expected to leave work once they have children, to put their familial role first. That might also help explain the fact that there are five men on the Korean legislature for every one woman.

And the expectation that women will play a more limited, narrow role in Korean society might also inform the lopsided female-to-male ratio at birth. For every 100 male Korean babies born, there are only 93 females, far below the world average. A skewed sex ratio at birth is sometimes considered a sign of selective abortions, which could itself indicate the perceived value of women versus men. 

South Korea's gender gap clearly runs deep, deeper than just corporate cultures. In a way, it's a reminder that Korea's long tenure as a poor, agrarian society was not so long ago.

For Park to take this on, she would have to change more than just her nation's cultural attitudes or those of her male-dominated government: She would need, as President Obama termed his shifting thinking on gay rights, to "evolve" on the issue.

Yesterday, The Post's Chico Harlan reported from Seoul on Park's record on gender issues, which does not suggest much of a demonstrated interest or a popular mandate:

This presidential election, according to most analysts, is not a referendum on gender issues. Voters have judged the two leading candidates mostly on their economic agendas, and to a lesser extent on their strategies in dealing with North Korea. Moon and Park have outlined competing policies to help women in the workplace, but in her 16 years as a legislator, Park showed no particular passion for women’s issues.

Park is viewed by South Koreans not as a feminist but as a traditional power figure. Her father, Park Chung-hee, gained power in a 1961 military coup and ruled the country for 18 years. Park Geun-hye, who has never married, served briefly as the nation’s first lady after her mother was killed in an assassination attempt that missed its real target, her father.

If she becomes president, Park could help normalize the idea of women holding positions of power, opening the door for others at universities, in the corporate world or in government. But some gender studies experts here say her rise would offer few applicable examples for women about how to break Korea’s glass ceiling. The greatest lesson might be a dispiriting one: If you want to become a female leader, it helps if you’re the child of a president.

As her country's first female leader, future-President Park might have a unique opportunity to finish what her father started and bring the Korean miracle to all South Koreans.

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Max Fisher | December 19, 2012