The Institution of Neo-Confucianism and its Consequences on the Prejudice Against Women in the South Korean Workforce

An essay by Mykeila Duong

South Korea in the 21st century is a highly developed country with an economy that often ranked in the top 20 in the world. The country underwent an economic miracle that transformed the nation into one of Asia’s powerhouses along with Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In addition to this success, South Korea is also the birth place of a numerous globally recognized  corporations such as Samsung, Hyundai, and LG. In conjunction with the technology industry, the aviation sector has produced Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, two national flagships in the top 50 of the world’s best airlines. The southern half of the Korean peninsula is also the home of the Incheon Airport, the world’s second best airport in 2016, trailing only behind Singapore’s Changi Airtport, according to SkyTrax, a UK-based consultancy firm that conducts research on commercial airlines and airports.

The stellar economic transformation of South Korea induces a physically higher living standards for  Korean citizens . In consequence of the new profound economic success, the Korean society have also experienced changes in traditional virtues that are derived from this miracle such as the changing role of women as a housewife and a mother. However, South Korea’s performance on the gender equality is far less impressive. In fact, the 2013 Global Gender Gap report that measures the gap between the two genders in economic, political, education, and health-based criteria, ranked South Korea 111, below Japan at 105, and lower than the country’s rank in 2006 of 92 (Ryan 2014). The low position on the Gender Gap Report reflects the many discriminatory problems that Korean women are still facing today despite the nation’s status as a developed state. Several arguments have been observed by feminists in order to uncover the contributing factors of South Korea’s horrendous placement in the ranking. One conspicuous reason is the agency of neo-Confucianism. According to Hyunah Yang (2013), the Korea of today may indeed be the most Confucian society in the world and still deeply influenced by Confucian traditions. Neo-Confucianism ingrains the Korean society with the patriarchal philosophy which highlights the state of the alpha male and discriminates against women. As a result, the agency of neo-Confucianism indirectly becomes the driving force behind the discrimination against women in the workforce.

Neo-Confucianism is stemmed from the ancient Confucian system of beliefs. This antique Confucianism was a system of ethics devised by the Chinese philosopher Confucius (552-479 BC) that emphasized devotion to parents and family, loyalty to friends, justice, peace, education, reform and humanitarianism in addition to the respect and deference that should be given to those in positions of authority (Robinson & Zahorchak 2009). His teachings followed a hierarchy model that emphasized the important of a harmonious society. Due to this patriarchal philosophy, Confucius firmly believed that men were superior to women and that a woman’s place was in the home (Robinson & Zahorchak 2009). Consequently, the natural division of labor was for the husband to work in the fields and to handle family business, while the woman stayed home taking care of children and managing domestic affairs (Li 2003). Since China was the hegemonic power in the antiquity era, the Confucian school of thoughts expanded beyond the Chinese border and influenced the philosophical ideologies of other neighboring countries including Korea.

Although Confucianism was introduced into Korea around the beginning of the Christian era, however, it was not until the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) that Confucianism began to dominate Korean society according to Hello from Korea (2005). As Confucianism trickled into Korea, it was evolved into neo-Confucianism, which combined the sage’s original ethical and political ideas with the quasi religious practice of ancestor worship and the idea of the eldest male as spiritual head of the family (Robinson & Zahorchak 2009). However, its influences on the government and society began to be decisive and, especially from the sixteenth on, it dominated almost completely the thought and philosophy of the peninsula, continuing to do so until the opening of the present century (Yang & Henderson 1958). King Sejong the Great was the authoritative figure responsible for imposing neo-Confuciann ideologies on medieval Korea into a Confucian society by mandating this system of thoughts as the foundation for his government and strictly organizing Korean society in a patriarchal order. According to Jean Renshaw (2012), the strong neo-Confucian virtues enforced by King Sejong emphasized on the obedience by women to the male – her father and son, the ruler, and of course, the government. Neo-Confucian images of obedient, chaste, and quietly dedicated woman became deeply and universally entrenched Korean ideas; as this process advanced, women’s freedoms were restricted, their roles strictly defined, and their status diminished (Sharman & Young 2008). This perception of an obedient woman further enhanced the bias against women that Confucius had accentuated in his teachings according to modern Confucian specialists. They indicate that the total reorganization of society was the development of a more rigid gender hierarchy that restricted elite women to homes and oppresses women of the working class (Poling & Kim 2012). Due to the stringent enforcement in the Joseon Dynasty, Koreans practiced Confucian teachings much more thoroughly than their Chinese counterparts (Brockman & Broadbent 2011). Subsequently, this system of beliefs continues its domination in contemporary period in the Korean peninsula, where the prejudice against women has prompted gender inequality in the Korean workforce with issues such as discrimination during the hiring process, gender wage gap, and the glass ceiling.

Among the developed states, South Korean women are challenged by the toughest gender inequality in the workforce, which begins with the hiring process. The country are frequently positioned in the bottom half of the gender reports from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, more commonly known as the OECD.

According to Kyla Ryan (2014), although South Korea has a similar number of male and female college graduates, it ranked last in the OECD when it came to employing female graduates. Moreover, the OECD report displayed that South Korea is the only OECD country where female college graduates do not have a higher employment rate than women with only compulsory education. (p. 1).

Its low ranking in the female employment rate is a contradictory outcome to the country’s high percentage of female college graduates of 60 percent, which is higher than the average of OECD women with degrees, which locks in at 40 percent. The discrimination occurs repeatedly during the interview session where female applicants receive irrelevant questions that do not conform to the job descriptions such as inquiries about their weight, marriage and children plans.

As a result, the widespread of this hiring practice prompted complains from job seekers and  the Korean government decided to implant new measures to prohibit the discrimination and to increase the female labor force by imposing financial penalties on employers who violated the law. A company could face penalties of up to $4,400 if they are found to discriminate based on gender, according to the Korea Herald (Lidgett 2015). However, the measures are only applicable to unisex jobs and exclude professions that are catered to a specific gender such as men clothing models and security guards for male dormitory. Although the new measures do not yield immediate results in increasing the female workforce, the affect on employers is beginning to be apparent.

A ministry official told the Korea Times that compared to the past, the number of cases is decreasing where recruitment notices directly demand specific gender or specific physical conditions or ask about marital status. But there still are many cases where interviewers ask applicants about their marriage plans or select only applicants with specific physical conditions for short-term or part-time positions (as cited in Lidgett, 2015, p.1).

The decreasing number of complains indicates that employers are starting to loosen up the dependency on neo-Confucianism and to accept more female workers without the prejudice. Based on the ministry official’s dictation, it is still certain that the number of companies conforming to the new measure is lower than firms who are still resisting to the new change.

The gender profiling in the hiring process prevents many degree-holding women to find suitable jobs, but for many female employees, the prejudice against them carries on to their working environment; it is found in the disparity between female and male wages. The image of a male breadwinner has much deeply ingrained in the Korean society that results in the inevitably enormous wage gap in this highly-advanced country. Compared to other developed countries, the gender wage gap in South Korea is the widest. According to 2013 statistics by Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), Korea had the widest gender wage gap of 36.6 percent among OECD member countries, followed by Japan with 26.6 percent gap whereas the OECD average stands at 12.8 percent (Yoon 2015). The wage gap found in these reports do not distinguish between single and married women. In a separate report, the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently looked at pay gaps around the world, and South Korea’s was remarkable: women without children earn about 13 percent less than men, a pay gap about twice as wide as America’s; but that gap nearly quadruples if Korean women have children, at which point they earn an astounding 45 percent less than men (Fisher 2012). One possible explanation of the difference in wages between married women and men is the aftermath of childbearing. According to Ryan (2014), many women in South Korea appear to quit their job when entering their 30s for reasons such as marriage and childbirth, and later return to the work-force only as part-timers, for childcare reasons. Based on the neo-Confucian system of beliefs, it is undoubtedly that child care is the mother’s duty, thus, she must devote her time to fully taking care of the family; therefore, mothers who juggle between work and family are more likely to accept part-time job offers. As most mothers substitute their career with child care in their 30s, they are not supported by the neo-Confucianist Korean society to return and continue their career, which result in the wide pay gap between married women and men.

In order to encourage mothers back to the workforce, the government emphasizes on the essential of supporting working mothers. When Korean women take their time off for childcare, very few companies will provide the returning mothers back to work after a long career gap because they do not wish to spend the financial investments on married female employees. If these women are given a job position, the job offers are usually low-paid, low skill jobs that undermine the potential of these returning mothers. Subsequently, the government has implemented measures in order to reinforce companies to employ mothers tothe female labor force, and one of the measures is to grant financial incentives for these firms. Under the new measures, higher financial incentives will be provided to companies for building in-house child-care centers, and strict building regulations for such facilities will be relaxed to make construction more practical in addition to expanding the rules for child-rearing leave—which is separate from birth leave and can be taken for up to one year—to include working moms with kids up to age 9 from the current 6 (Woo 2013). With the addition of these in-house utilities, the government has anticipated more working mothers willing to return to work.

Aside from the wage disparity between both sexes, many South Korean women encounter the biggest dilemma of their career: the glass ceiling. The country currently experiences the thickest glass ceiling in the workforce despite the fact that a numerous global corporations and countless of businesses are founded in this nation, the percentage of female executives is relatively low compared to other OECD countries. Among the executives of the 500 largest Korean companies, women are accounted for only 2.3 percent (Choi 2016). In the two of the nation’s biggest conglomerates, Samsung and Hyundai, the number of female holding senior positions does not coordinate to the amount of employees. The combined percentage of female executives in the two powerful firms are under 5 percent. Samsung Electronics had 48 women board members, or 4 percent of the total 1,188, while Hyundai Motor had only two (0.8 percent) of 266 executives (Choi 2016). The prejudice against married women are also seen in the corporate world, with 83 percent of married men work across Korea, only 49 percent of married women do—mostly in low-level positions (Lee 2013). As for the political sector, female politicians are also combating similar discrimination. Out off the 300 available seats in the National Assembly, only 47, or 15.7 percent, are filled by women (Lee 2013). Regardless of their constant efforts in gaining seats in the Assembly, their existence is frequently overlooked by their male counterparts. Rep. Lee Eun-joo of the Democratic United Party stated in a radio appearance in 2013 that while people’s sensibility has changed quite a bit, there is still a big male-oriented aspect in the culture and customs of the political arena; there is also the view that women are mere ornaments (Lee 2013). Similar to women in the political world, gender biased incidents have occurred where skilled women are passed over in favor of men. Choi He-suk (2016) documented a female employee of a manufacturing firm accusing her employer of gender discrimination by passing over a female colleague for a promotion in favor of a man, despite being considered highly capable and having more experience than the male colleague. With the apparent low percentage of women in senior positions, the inauguration of Park Geun Hye, the first female president, is merely considered as a small scratch on the glass ceiling.

As the first female president, Park has been planning measures to increase the number of female labor by encouraging working fathers to be more active in child-care. When Korean women take a career break to devote their time on the children, they are entitled to one of the best parental protection laws. The law sets forth a 90-day paid maternity leave and a one-year childcare leave with 400,000 won monthly allowance (Renshaw 2012). Thus, the Korean government introduced similar incentives to encourage fathers to take paternity leave. Legislation went into effect requiring private companies with more than 300 employees to allow new fathers to take three days of leave for the birth of child in 2008 and by the next August, it was increased to five day (Woo 2013). The paternity leave was deemed as a fundamental step in supporting working mothers and reducing the gender imbalance in the labor force. In addition, this new law could trigger a new change in the philosophical system that was too ingrained by neo-Confucianism. Contrary to the anticipation, the number of men taking paternity leave is less than impressive. According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, only 2.8% of total child-rearing leave was taken by fathers in the year of 2012 (Woo 2013).

In conclusion, the discrimination in the hiring process, the disparity between the wages of both sexes, and the glass ceiling are the apparent complications stemmed from the institutionalization of neo-Confucian philosophical beliefs that have always limited women’s freedom. Women are expected to stay home and take care of domestic affairs, therefore, it is essential to leave the labor force once they have children. The Korean government recognizes the shrinking female labor pool and implements multiple measures in hope to recreate the gender balance in the workforce with only minimal success.  With the institutionalization of neo-Confucianism at this point in time, it is inevitable that gender inequality will continue to be a persistent problem; therefore, the country will need time to adjust to their new profound status as a developed country and to improve women’s rights since South Korea has only achieved its economic success in the last half of the 20th century.


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