SEOUL — South Korea has the chance Wednesday to elect a woman to its top office, an unprecedented step in a nation long dominated by boardrooms of men and ranked only slightly ahead of most Islamic countries when it comes to gender equality.
The outcome of the presidential election is hardly clinched: Conservative Park Geun-hye — known to her supporters as Madame Park — must hold off liberal Moon Jae-in, who in recent weeks has slashed Park’s lead in polls from several percentage points to nearly zero.
But a Park victory would represent a major symbolic breakthrough in a region underpinned by Confucianism, a Chinese-born philosophy that says women should be obedient to their husbands. Until seven years ago, South Korean women did not have equal inheritance rights. South Korea’s wage gap between men and women is the widest among fully industrialized countries.
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.
“Most accomplished South Korean women started from the ground level and have worked their way up while facing discrimination,” said Kim Hyun-young, a professor of gender studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Park is a different case because she reached her current position thanks to her father’s political glory.”
Park’s campaign team has tried in recent weeks to emphasize her qualifications as a “fully prepared female president,” as one widely distributed poster reads. The message comes at a time when, despite the gender gap, Koreans increasingly see gender equality as a national priority. In a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, 93 percent of South Koreans said women should have equal rights and 71 percent said more changes were still needed.
Koreans young and old can rattle off the female virtues traditionally held in high esteem here. Women are viewed as disciplined, competent and skilled at managing money, a responsibility they undertake in both traditional and modern households.
Park has alluded to those virtues during her campaign. She said in a recent speech that South Korea should vote for a “motherly leader” who can handle another potential global economic crisis.
“Male presidents in South Korea have repeatedly been caught up in power struggles and corruption and have failed to realize public dreams,” Park said. “But women can solve many of the problems that men cannot fix.”
A spokesman for Moon’s campaign, Park Kwang-on, told Korean journalists several months ago that it was “disingenuous” for Park to use her gender as a campaign strategy when she has “never had to share women’s worries and hardships.”
Park has pledged to introduce a quota system for female professors and increase the number of women in the cabinet. She also wants to expand state-sponsored child-care services, encourage men to take paternity leave and offer tax breaks or subsidies to companies with strong female representation.
According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks 108th among 135 countries in gender equality. Two of five college-educated women don’t have jobs. The male dominance is still ingrained in business culture, and many major companies still routinely end nights of mandated drinking at “room salons,” where hostesses flirt with the customers.
But the country is making some progress. In 2009, women outnumbered men in universities. Women have held spots on the Supreme Court and at the top of the Justice Ministry, a traditionally powerful job. Over the past 12 years, the number of female lawmakers in South Korea has tripled, and women hold 15 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.
Until this year, only two women — both marginal candidates — had run for president. One of them, Kim Ok-seon, who ran in 1992 and was famous for wearing men’s suits, won 0.4 percent of the vote. But this year, in addition to Park, two other female candidates are in the race, though they have no chance of winning. Another woman, ultraliberal Lee Jung-hee, dropped out.