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

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 1, 2010; A10

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.

"Women in their late 20s are just not willing to make the sacrifice of having children, juggling family responsibilities and working," Yoo said.

Collapsing birthrates are alarming East Asian governments, which in coming years will face a demographic crunch as the proportion of pensioners rises and the number of working-age adults declines. South Korea, which has projected a population decline beginning in 2018, is scrambling to encourage childbirth with incentives including low-interest home loans for families with three or more children.

But for South Korean women, choosing to have children usually means falling off the career track. There is a 30 percent employment gap here between men and women, the fourth-largest gap in the world, after Turkey, Mexico and Greece. Even if women choose to stay on the job, they have no guarantees of career advancement.

U.N. statistics show that gender empowerment, as measured by women holding management and professional jobs, is falling.

"This means that despite Korean women having good health and excellent education, they still have a much greater chance of becoming a politician or even a middle manager or computer programmer in countries like Kyrgyzstan, the Dominican Republic, Botswana or Nicaragua," said James Turnbull, whose blog, "The Grand Narrative," tracks sex discrimination and the role of women in South Korea.

Hwang, the working mom who says she spent about $8,600 last fall buying newspaper ads to vent her frustrations, works 10 to 12 hours a day as a chief strategic officer in charge of product promotions for a Seoul marketing company. She said her salary is about double what her husband makes -- a rare and delicate equation in a South Korean family.

"When you make more than the husband, you have to be careful not to hurt his pride," said Hwang, 38, who makes about $86,000 a year. "I make a point of getting a suggestion from him, when I buy my own clothes or a new aquarium for my son's fish."

Even more problematic, Hwang said, is her husband's mother.

In the "I Am a Bad Woman" advertisement that she placed in the newspaper, Hwang gives this account of telephoning her mother-in-law to ask for help with child care:

"Her sharp scolding returns from the other side of the phone: 'Have you forgotten today is the day of your father-in-law's memorial service? Your other family members are already here. I understand you are talented and all, but do you ever fulfill your family obligations?' "

Hwang said her husband is more sympathetic and "does more at home than other husbands in South Korea." She said she understands that it is not easy for him to have a working wife.

"The husbands here expect a warm home and a pat on the shoulder, but sometimes my husband may not get that," she said.

Hwang's husband declined to comment.

Special correspondent June Lee contributed to this report.

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