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.