Challenges for Women in the Workplace

by Tom Coyner (The Korea Times), 12/07/2007

My first encounter with Korea’s sexual differentiation was in 1975 as a new Peace Corps volunteer going through pre-service training. Often our most important survival skills were taught by experienced Peace Corps volunteer instructors. Without doubt the most important lesson I picked up from these folks was that when in the village bow respectfully to the male elders - but watch out for the women, since it was the women who really rule.

Most Westerners expect and witness a major separation - and often discrimination - between the sexes in Korea. While men may dominate in society, again, the real rulers of Korea are the women - traditionally at home, often running the small family businesses, but almost always controlling the household finances. While everyone always bows first to the eldest male in the home, normally the real power can be the mother of the husband who manages the affairs of everyone in the home, followed by the wife who is second in command with direct responsibilities for the welfare and education of the children as well as investing the family income. The financial difference between two similar male wage earners’ incomes often is due to the business acumen or investment luck of the wife. Should all parents-in-law be deceased or living apart, the husband assumes the de facto authority of his mother. Still, in such a case, his wife carries on, controlling the home - including even managing the husband’s discretionary money spending.

As strong as the superficial and real advantages of men over women may be, the yet stronger controlling factor is age. Even in the business world, an older woman can hold sway over younger men, which may be one of the reasons why Korean companies have traditionally urged women to retire as they become pregnant. Things remain simple with an older male manager supervising a younger female employee. Today’s young men are even generally at ease when reporting to female supervisors - provided the woman supervisor is older or, at the very least, has more years of relevant company experience.

Matters can become complicated within most Korean companies should a younger manager need to supervise an older employee regardless of sex. As Korean companies move more to merit-based promotions and away from seniority systems, this Confucian mentality often forces the early retirement of senior managers as a means of the company preventing discord caused by a younger employee managing one or more older staff members. Too often the first to go are women.

For example, in some corporations, the supervising managers do not do performance appraisals. The overall distribution of appraisal scores and grades are fixed and can have a large-scale influence on the final individual appraisal results. Often the number of appraisals by grade is pre-ordained, such as by a pre-determined bell curve. The best appraisals are reserved to senior and older managers since for them not to get a high rating could quickly lead to early, involuntary retirement. Also, married men supporting families tend to rate better than single women. From an individual employee’s perspective, this may not seem to be fair, but from the group’s concern for the overall welfare of the employees, so there is a rationale.

Many Korean managers are not anti-female, but they expect male employees to shoulder or eventually shoulder the majority financial responsibility of raising a family. Therefore, when push comes to shove, women employees often unfairly lose out.

And yet, things even in Confucian Korea are changing. Korean women are assuming wider and greater roles in business, so their presence is being felt more significantly than ever. For example, business entertainment or after-work dining/drinking is an important part of Korean business. Traditionally, women were often invited but not expected to stay on late into the evening. But even here, change is in motion.

Increasingly Korean businesswomen are feeling free to invite and to attend after-work entertainment occasions A proper evening out on the town starts with a restaurant and ends after visiting two or more bars. Attending the restaurant is, again, no problem and possibly the same with the first bar. Still, it may be wise for the businesswoman to be attentive if the guys are going to be ill at ease with her joining the second or third bar. Change does not happen overnight and pushing the issue too hard can be counterproductive. On the other hand, Korean businessmen can be delighted that businesswomen wish to continue on. The problem, of course, is alcohol and it is not enough that the woman alone is in control of her senses. So, there are no easy words of advice on this topic since the situation can vary considerably.

While most younger Korean men and women are much more progressive about fair and equal treatment of women than their older male managers, the corporate bodies tend to be systemically conservative. In due time, many liberal thinking men conform to the majority and most women eventually give up any ideas of getting past often rather low glass ceilings. Consequently women tend to be among Korea’s least leveraged resources.

But the picture is not entirely black. One of the positives of the IMF crisis at the turn of the century was the sale of major Korean companies to foreign corporations. Motivated by global commitments to employee diversity and/or recognizing the untapped potential of many Korean female employees, foreign controlled Korean companies are implementing fair employment practices and proving to the rest of the market the competitive advantages of promoting competent female employees into responsible management positions.

Recently local newspapers noted that of Korea Exchange Bank’s recent 114 promotions to management, more than 40 percent were female. Two years ago, less than half of that percentage was female. What was not reported was that Korea Exchange Bank is now under foreign management. In contrast, only about 10 percent of Korea’s overall managers are female. But even that is progress when one considers that nine years ago, less than one percent of Korean managers were women.

One of the challenges is for women to develop the self-confidence and image to take on serious management responsibilities. Even in junior grades, women often refuse to do less than pleasant duties, such as traveling on extended trips into the countryside and to smaller cities from Seoul, that their young male counterparts accept as part of ``paying one’s dues.’’ Undoubtedly many young female employees cannot see the value in paying the dues when ultimately there is no real opportunity for extended career growth.

Also, as was the case in the West, young aspiring Korean female business professionals lack the mentorship that their male cohorts enjoy. If there is a woman in a senior position, too often she is in another department and getting too close to a senior manager in another department can make for hazardous corporate politics. And as with anywhere, if a woman is to succeed in general and senior management, she needs to determine to what degree can she stay true to her intrinsic feminine values without being mistaken as being incapable by her masculine co-workers. Until there are more Korean female executive role models, the current generation of women managers will likely have to suffer through an ongoing trial of success and error in the workplace.

While not an entirely happy picture, it is an encouraging one. Korea is opening its marketplace not only to new products and services but also to new management ideas. As more Korean companies discover the competitive advantages of fully engaging the capabilities of all employees, in time most other companies will follow suit, if only out of economic necessity. When that happens, Korean women will be stepping out from homes and family stores _ and finally will be publicly acknowledged for their genuine role in this society.

Tom Coyner is president of Soft Landing Korea (, a sales-focused business development firm, and co-author of Mastering Korean Business: A Practical Guide.

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