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  • Human Rights Research Center

South Korea’s Hurdles with Gender Equality

February 27, 2024


#MeToo and Gender Equality in East Asia: Part 2



Gender Equality

The state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender.


Over the past couple of years, South Korea has achieved considerable economic growth popularly seen in the entertainment industry with Korean Pop or K-Pop. However, an underlying social issue has haunted this thriving society: gender equality. The country maintains one of the largest gender pay gaps throughout developed economies with women earning only 63% of men’s salaries[2,6]. As one of the world's most important and well-known concerns, gender equality became a popular topic of discussion, especially during the #MeToo movement. This movement is a global, survivor-led movement bringing awareness against sexual violence and abuse. #MeToo not only addressed the issue of sexual harassment but also highlighted gender disparities and stereotypes within work and society[5].


According to Statista[7], South Korea had a .68/1 gender gap index score in 2023, ranking Korea 105th out of the 146 countries surveyed. This meant that there was still a 32% gender gap within the country. Comparatively, the United States had a gender gap score of .74/1, ranking it 43rd out of the total countries surveyed. Looking deeper into gender roles in South Korea, cultural values have a substantial influence on these numbers. Men must bear the responsibility of the primary familial provider while women are expected to focus on childcare and act submissive. A 2020 Women in Korea report found a larger percentage of men worked in labor-heavy jobs or senior management positions whereas women tended to work in sales and jobs relating to customer service.


These disparities and stereotypes ultimately presented themselves in politics and the #MeToo movement. In 2018, the movement took hold within this conservative country and many allegations against men in power were brought forward by women previously silenced and brushed aside[2]. In an article by Laura Bicker at BBC News, Seoul, the turning point was an interview with public prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon where she accused a former South Korean Ministry of Justice official of groping her during a funeral in 2010. His “forgetfulness” of the incident became a rallying cry for women to publicly confront the gender norms that have solidified themselves in Korean society for so long. Further positive results of #MeToo were seen when Governor Ahn Hee-jung resigned after being accused of raping his secretary. Poems by Ko Un, once considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature, are set to be erased from textbooks after he was accused of sexually harassing female literary scholars. These high-profile success stories seemed like the movement was working, but the backlash was also growing.


Despite the nation’s fight against gender inequality, hostility especially with young men in their 20s or “idaenam” (이대남) towards feminist ideals and issues escalated[4]. One activist group called Dang Dan We, a group “fighting for justice for men”, stated:


Groups like Dang Dang We argue that due to the increasing emergence of mainstream feminism, young men in their 20s are paying the price. In an interview with a Dang Dang We member, Kim, a university student mentioned he purposely avoids sitting near women at bars so he’s not falsely accused of sexual harassment. The men argue that protesting women’s objectification doesn’t acknowledge the double standard of discrimination against men. The argument of a double standard showed itself through South Korea’s long-held rule about male drafting with all able-bodied men between 18-35 forcibly serving up to two years in the military. Young men believe that this is a form of gender discrimination and feel that those two years could have been used for self-improvement in the country’s hyper-competitive job market, which women benefit from. Even in the job market, some men say that now employment has become a gender quota rather than merit-based[4].


However, these concerns not only affected men but have also resulted in a witch hunt against feminists. “Femi” has been coined as a derogatory label for any person speaking up about gender discrimination and women’s empowerment with an underlying connotation of mental illness[1].  Son Naeun of the K-Pop group Apink was accused of promoting feminism by just having a phone case that read “Girls can do anything[2].” Even students are cautious to discuss this issue in public or be seen with any books related to feminism due to the antagonistic attitudes toward the topic. Even in politics, the new conservative president Yoon Suk Yeol pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, saying it’s no longer needed[3].


But, even with slow progress, women are adamant about receiving their equal rights. Discrimination can target both men and women; however, a woman’s life in South Korea is impacted by more than just gender inequality. As seen with images of women entertainment artists, they are held to an unrealistic and at times, inappropriate, beauty standard. Physicality is essential in Korean society, with stigmas against women who may not wear makeup or have short hair. These pressures of mandated vanity led to attacks on a woman’s appearance with assumptions of sickness or feminist radicalization[1].


With all this being said, what exactly is the issue preventing a path to full gender equality in South Korea? This problem is mainly systemic. Women only earn 63% of men’s salaries with very few women in key positions of power, making up only 2% of boardrooms. Being a patriarchal society for so long, can movements like #MeToo change an entire culture? It may not, but change is continuously happening within the country. Per Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommendations, the Korean government has been focused on reducing the burden of child-rearing that pushes women to prioritize family over work. The Framework Act on Gender Equality made approximately 2,600 policy improvements in 2018, in addition to mandating gender-responsive budgeting in central government agencies in 2010 and local government bodies in 2013[8]. As changes are implemented in society, members of the younger generation will be more informed about their rights and speak their minds.


Young women discuss the #MeToo movement in this jiu-jitsu class [2].


 

View the accompanying visual report on our website here or download the full visual report below.


South Korea Gender Equality Infographic
.pdf
Download PDF • 11.30MB

 

Glossary


  1. Gender Equality: The state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender.

  2. Gender-Responsive Budgeting: Introduced in 2006, gender-responsive budgeting is used to ensure national financial resources are evenly distributed for both women and men.

  3. “Idaenam:” This phrase is translated to men in their 20s.

  4. #MeToo: A global, survivor-led movement bringing awareness against sexual violence and abuse.

  5. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): An intergovernmental organization with 38 member countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade. OECD countries collaborate on key global issues at national, regional, and local levels.

  6. Stereotype: An often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic.


 

References


  1. Ahn, A. (2022, December 3). Feminists are protesting against the wave of anti-feminism that’s swept South Korea. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/12/03/1135162927/women-feminism-south-korea-sexism-protest-haeil-yoon

  2. Bicker, L. (2018, March 26). #MeToo movement takes hold in South Korea. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-43534074

  3. Kang, H. (2022, December 4). Despite stark gender inequality in South Korea, hostility to feminism is growing. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/stark-gender-inequality-south-korea-hostility-feminism-growing-rcna59747

  4. Kwon, J. (2019, September 24). South Korea’s young men are fighting against feminism. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/21/asia/korea-angry-young-men-intl-hnk/index.html

  5. Luo, H., & Zhang, L. (2021, August 27). Measuring the Impact of #MeToo on Gender Equity in Hollywood. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/05/measuring-the-impact-of-metoo-on-gender-equity-in-hollywood 

  6. Rich, T. S., White, S., & Coyle, J. (2023, October 27). How do South Koreans View Gender Discrimination?. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2023/10/how-do-south-koreans-view-gender-discrimination/

  7. So, W. (2023, December 7). South Korea: Gender Gap Index 2023. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1378362/south-korea-gender-gap-index/

  8. Yang, H. (2021, October 25). Gender equality: Korea has come a long way, but there is more work to do. OECD. https://www.oecd.org/country/korea/thematic-focus/gender-equality-korea-has-come-a-long-way-but-there-is-more-work-to-do-8bb81613/

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