With pressures high, South Korean women put off marriage and childbirth

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 1, 2010

SEOUL -- In a full-page newspaper advertisement headlined "I Am a Bad Woman," Hwang Myoung-eun explained the trauma of being a working mom in South Korea.

"I may be a good employee, but to my family I am a failure," wrote Hwang, a marketing executive and mother of a 6-year-old son. "In their eyes, I am a bad daughter-in-law, bad wife and bad mother."

The highly unusual ad gave voice to the resentment and repressed anger that are common to working women across South Korea.

In a country where people work more and sleep less than anywhere else in the developed world, women are often elbowed away from rewards in their professional lives. If they have a job, they make 38 percent less money than men, the largest gender gap in the developed world. If they become pregnant, they are pressured at work not to take legally guaranteed maternity leave.

Thanks to gender equality in education, the professional skills and career aspirations of women in South Korea have soared over the past two decades. But those gains are colliding with a corporate culture that often marginalizes mothers at the workplace -- or ejects them altogether.

Women who do combine work and family find themselves squeezed between too little time and too much guilt: for neglecting the education of children in a nation obsessed with education, for shirking family obligations as dictated by assertive mothers-in-law, and for failing to attend to the care and feeding of overworked and resentful husbands.

As Hwang complained in two mournful newspaper advertisements she bought last fall in Seoul newspapers: "We work harder than anyone to manage housekeeping and earn wages, so why are we branded as selfish, irresponsible women?"

When the ads were published in September, Hwang's name did not appear in them. But she has since acknowledged buying them and has gone on television to draw attention to the pressures endured by working women.

Most South Korean corporations do little to accommodate working mothers -- or working fathers, experts say. South Korean law allows a full year of subsidized parental leave, but intense peer pressure at work means that working mothers usually take little time off, according to government surveys. Only about 35,000 parents in this country of 49 million people took advantage of child-care leave subsidies last year.

"The longer leave they take, the less the likelihood of getting their old job back, even though that is illegal," said Yoo Gye-sook, an associate professor of family studies at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. "Flextime is frowned on by human-resources managers. They feel that company discipline might erode."

To lower stress as they climb corporate ladders, women in South Korea are postponing marriage and motherhood. The number of unmarried women in their 20s and 30s is surging. For three years running, South Korea has had the world's lowest birthrate, according to the U.N. World Health Organization.

The no-husband, no-baby trend has become a demographic epidemic in East Asia. Among the 10 countries or territories with the world's lowest fertility rates, six are in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a 2008 CIA ranking. From Japan to Singapore, the percentage of women who remain single into their mid-30s is rising at historically unprecedented rates. In South Korea, the percentage of unmarried women ages 30 to 34 nearly doubled in the past five years, rising to 19 percent from 10.5 percent.


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