On March 3, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development announced the "Women Business and the Law Index Score" report. According to the report, Korea ranked 65th out of 190 countries surveyed with 85 points. Among the eight areas evaluated, Korea scored particularly low score with 25 points in the "wage" part, which evaluates the environment related to women's wages. This figure suggests the reality that gender wage discrimination still remains in Korean society.
Discrimination, deep-seated in society
The gender wage gap is defined as the difference between the median earnings of men and women relative to the median earnings of men. It is used to highlight sexual discrimination in society. According to the Gender Wage Gap annual report by the OECD, Korea has topped the gender wage gap for 26 years. Korea has a gender wage gap of 31.1% as of 2021, which means women are paid 68.9% of men's wages. The gender wage gap in Korea was significantly different from those surveyed during the same period, such as Norway, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. It can be seen that there is also a gender wage gap in other countries, and it suggests that discrimination against women remains these days. However, their figures are clearly different from those of Korea. Due to this problem, on January 17, the United Nations Human Rights Council set up a preliminary questionnaire. Other countries participating in the deliberation mainly asked the Korean government to guarantee women's human rights and economic participation. In particular, the U.S. asked whether the Korean government has a policy to resolve the gender wage gap, pointing out that Korea has the largest gender wage gap among OECD member countries. As the wage gap in Korea has persisted for a long time, the international community is urging the country to change this.
The gender wage gap is not a new social problem within Korea. Article 11, paragraph 1 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea stipulates the right not to be discriminated against by gender. Nevertheless, gender inequality in economic terms remains a chronic problem. According to the 2020 Gender Wage Gap by Institution released by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in November 2022, the highest among the median gender wage gap index of 26 institutions in Seoul was 54.99%. This median gender wage gap of 54.99% indicates that women's wages are about 450 thousand won, assuming that men's wages are 1 million won. On the other hand, of the 26 institutions, three institutes in Seoul had a negative median gender wage gap. This shows that it is rare that women get wages more than men. Moreover, the minimum value was -29.95%, indicating that when a man's wage is 1 million won, a woman's wage is about 1.3 million won. There are many public institutions in Seoul where men receive more wages than women, and even when women's wage is higher than that of man, the gap is less than in the opposite case. Although Korea legally prohibits economic discrimination according to gender, discrimination still exists.
The root of corrupt practice
Compared to the past, women's economic activities are becoming more active, but there is still an employment gap that can cause the gender wage gap. Men are more likely to be distributed in higher positions than women, resulting in a gender gap in the wage. However, as of September 2021, there was no female first-degree civil servant engaged in the court administrative organization. In addition, according to the Status of Gender Composition of Public Officials by Position, 81 first- to third-degree civil servants are classified as high-level civil servants, but only 7 are female. Considering the total number of female civil servants in 2021, it can be seen that the higher the position, the lower the proportion of women. This implies the existence of a glass ceiling in the labor market. Women who come up against the glass ceiling are excluded from major tasks and have difficulty in not being able to fully demonstrate their abilities and get promoted to higher positions. A woman who had experienced the glass ceiling said, "When selecting those for promotion, I took the same annual leave, and I worked in the financial management team continuously while another man had a handicap as he had moved department. However, I was excluded from the promotion."1) This is a case in which a woman was not promoted despite having the same annual leave and being more proficient in terms of work. As a result, women stay in lower positions more often than men, and their wages are lower than those of men.
The employment gap and the glass ceiling appears because of women's career breaks due to pregnancy, birth, and childcare. After women get a job at a company, some of them go through pregnancy, birth, and childcare, and even have to quit. This is because women still can raise their children and do housework in a patriarchal society, making it harder for women to do both childcare and work. In Korean corporate culture, where the seniority system is important, leave of absence and resigning directly impact women's working lives. This system contributes to discrimination against women since they are forced to work relatively less than men. Also, it makes it more difficult for women to get higher positions and they get paid less. Lee Juhee, a professor at Ewha Womans University, said, "This discrimination occurs because companies consider women as beings who have to care about childcare and housework, and judge that the productivity of women is lower than men."2) She emphasizes that most of women's career breaks are caused by gender discrimination in social structures, not by women's lack of ability. In addition, it means that women's abilities are not perceived as equal to men's, misunderstanding that women are less efficient than men due to childcare and housework. This assumption is likely to act as a stereotype for all women and can negatively impact both unmarried and married women. The sex role stereotype society gives women makes their economic participation more difficult. Therefore, many of the women whose careers have been cut off cannot find re-employment or stable jobs.
Apart from the problem aroused by the seniority system, many women are made to accept because they have had career breaks and have not found a stable job again. Under the Labor Standards Act, Korea guarantees the labor rights of those who work more than 15 hours. "Short-hours part-time workers" who work less than 15 hours a week cannot receive weekly holiday allowances and can't be legally guaranteed employment rights such as severance pay, and four major insurances. In this regard, Lee Byunghoon, a professor at Chung-Ang University said, "Women often participate in part-time work depending on social situations such as childbirth and childcare."3) He explained the social structure in which many of the women have become short-hours part-time workers involuntarily, even though they want to work full-time. Women who give up their existing jobs for childcare and housework work very short hours and combine childcare and housework. Therefore, they suffer from time poverty, meaning they work long hours and lack leisure time. Lee Jimin, a researcher at the Korea Employment Information Service, said, "As a result of analyzing household assets, marital status, and gender, which are major variables of the time poor, women are more likely to become the time-poor."4) This seems to be the result of a combination of the situation where middle-aged women have to do childcare, housework, and their career breaks occur due to this. In the perspective that time is an economic resource, becoming women time-poor means they experience inequality in terms of economy in the patriarchal society.
Less than before, but discrimination still exists
Although Europe has a smaller gap than Korea's gender wage gap, a wage disclosure system is implemented for complete gender equality. The system aims to ensure that people who perform the same tasks and achieve similar results should receive the same wages regardless of gender. France has implemented the gender equality index disclosure system since 2019. The system requires workplaces with more than 50 employees to publish an index related to the wage gap between male and female workers on their websites and government websites every year. Companies with less than 75 points in the gender equality index should disclose the figures and how they will improve their shortcomings in the future. 27,436 French companies announced the results of the 2020 Gender Equality Index with 12% of them earning less than 75 points, the standard score for corrective action.5) Using these statistics, French women can compare the degree of gender equality among companies in France. In addition to wages, it makes it easier to compare the index records of the number of promotions and the proportion of women in the highest-paid positions. By disclosing these indicators, it is possible to see where gender discrimination is appearing in each company, and how companies need to improve based on this. This indicator allows women to pursue their rights in a working environment.
To strive to eliminate labor inequality, Korea is also implementing various policies to guarantee women's labor rights. In December 2020, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and the Korea Productivity Centers introduced the K-ESG Guidelines which reflected the reality of Korea. This guides how companies should prepare for ESG and respond to evaluation by dividing standards. Among them, the social part and the governance part include information that can recognize the extent to which gender discrimination arises. In response, Park Sunyoung, the Korean Women's Development Institute researcher, said, "Women's labor force is essential for fairness and sustainable management. The corresponding part of the K-ESG Guidelines is expected to resolve a lot of inequality against women in the working environment."6) This suggests that if gender inequality is resolved through the K-ESG guidelines, female workers in Korea can become more active, benefiting both companies and women. In addition, on January 30, the government announced a plan to increase the number of public institutions that use the job-based pay system to more than 100. This system determines the wages according to job content and is different from the salary system used in companies today. When the system is introduced in public institutions, employees' salaries will be set according to their abilities without being affected by gender. In this regard, the government intends to alleviate inequality by introducing a system that can manage both wage discrimination against women and the factors that contribute to it.
In addition to the introduction of these systems, the government is trying to address economic discrimination against women. In response to the government's labor market reform plan, women's organizations are critical. The government plans to extend working hours up to 80.5 hours a week. Since it could lead to men with a relatively lower burden of childcare and housework than women if working hours are allowed to be expanded in this way. Meanwhile, they also pointed out that the job-based pay system allows wages to be set regardless of gender, but this is not an essential solution. On December 15, 2022, the Women's Labor Solidarity Council said, "The gender wage gap cannot be resolved only by introducing job-based pay without improving the reality of the labor market, which discriminates against women."7) They argue that unless negative thinking about women's abilities that already exist in society is improved, even if the system is brought in, the wage gap will not narrow significantly. In other words, implementing the job-based pay system without considering the situation in which gender discrimination exists in the labor market may not have a positive effect. Despite the government's solutions, it seems that a substantial improvement in perception needs to happen first to reduce the actual wage.
No improvement, no equality
Women's burdens stemming from the patriarchal society mean women's abilities are underestimated in the labor market. Requiring pregnancy and childbirth from women are factors that disengage women from their careers and make them time-poor. The government is devising various policies to create an equal corporate culture, but there is criticism that their practical effects are insignificant. Therefore, fundamentally solving this problem will require a change in the mindset of people.
1) BBC NEWS Korea, "Discrimination Against Women: Korea Tops OECD Gender Wage Gap for 26 Years "There's No Place for a Woman"", December 7, 2022
2) See Footnote 1
3) BBC NEWS Korea, "Reasons Why More Than 70% Of 'Ultra-Short-Time Workers' Are Women", January 17, 2023
4) Cha Jiyeon, "Married Female with Low Assets and High Earned Income Are Likely to Be "Time Poverty"", Yonhap News Agency, January 21, 2023
5) Gu Kyungha, "When knowing the gender ratio of men and women, will the gap be narrowed? Looking at the overseas gender labor disclosure system", KBS NEWS, January 28, 2023
6) Kwon Myojeong, "K-ESG Guidelines, Gender Equality Index Is Mainly Dealt With", The Women's News, July 8, 2022
7) Lee Jubin, "Job Pay System Is Closing the Gender Pay Gap?...Rebellion of "False Justification" in the Women's World", The Women's News, December 15, 2022