Photo Gallery




             The increased levels of womens education has not greatly improved a womans chance of finding a good career. Educated Korean women are still domestic. A survey of 200 wives living in high rise apartments in Seoul (high rise apartments are among the most desirable dwellings in Korea and are usually only affordable to upper and upper middle class families)[1] found that 91% of them do not have regular paid employment outside the home.[2] The skills a woman learns in college, with some notable exceptions, are not generally used on the job. College-graduate womens work is mostly limited to clerical and pink collar jobs. It generally does not have a regular program of promotion and has a short life span to allow for womens early retirement at marriage or the birth of their first child.[3] Men chiefly take up the position of salaryman,[4] have a routine schedule of promotion and end up working until the age of retirement.

             People generally have one of two reasons for working. They must work to support themselves or their families, to put food on the table and a roof over their heads; or, they find their jobs fulfilling and enjoy what they do or get some satisfaction out of the work they have chosen. Korean women from the lower classes have the same motivations; the primary reason for women to work is to support, or to help support, themselves or their family[5] (as we have seen, the higher a womans educational achievement or status in the society the less likely she is to work). Since less educated, lower class women comprise the majority of the working women in Korea, we can assume that they work not because they want to, but because they must help provide for the economic well-being of their family. To be sure, there are among those many that enjoy their work, but the social pressures on a housewife to supervise the childs education and support the husband and home are probably only outweighed by a financial need.[6] As we shall see later in the chapter, those women in the upper classes (college graduates) who do not need to work out of economic necessity, generally do not pursue careers. Those few who do pursue careers, mostly do so for the satisfaction it provides and not for any monetary benefit.



             Though in the end most will end up in the kitchen, Korean university girls do have career aspirations while in school. But, like a young boys dream of growing up to become the president or an astronaut, it is a dream few girls will attain. They do not realize the intensity of the pressures to marry and raise children they will soon face. Pressures which will in the end get the better of them and force them into a life of domesticity.[7] Where these dreams for an independent life and career come from is a mystery. The idea was surely not instilled in them by their parents. Most parents (70%) want their university student daughters to work for only 1 or 2 years and then quit work when they get married. The rest of the parents (the remaining 30%) do not want their daughters to work at all but to just enter into happy marriages.[8] With a full 100% of the parents wishing their daughters nothing more than happy marriages and the girls themselves having no alternative role model other than their career housewife mothers to follow, the children quite naturally succumb to the prevailing sentiment and end up subconsciously embracing the same beliefs.



             Social obstacles against women successfully attaining a career range from the inadequacies of public institutions like child care for working women, and social welfare to care for their elderly parents, to the persistence of an ideological role for wives that virtually forbids them from leaving the home and children long enough to participate in full-time work.[9] If they do decide to work outside the home they are still required to maintain familial ties, supervise the childrens education, entertain their husbands colleagues, manage family resources and perform all other aspects of their expected wifely roles that their non-working peers do.[10]

             The economic structure of the society and the housewives status conscious attitudes further serve to prevent women from pursuing work outside the home.[11] Korea, as a class conscious, and class mobile society, places great weight on a persons achieved status. The relative status of a housewife as seen by the society is higher than that of secretaries, nurses or bank cashiers.[12] Housewives are seen by the government as contributors to society, who perform the valuable service of raising and caring for the next generation, and are seen as achievers who have earned their attained status by everyone else. Working class women, on the other hand, are generally considered to work only because they have to, and are not economically fortunate enough to be housewives.

             Economically, women literally, cannot afford to work! The wage gap between male and female workers is so great,[13] the wages a women can earn do not offset the additional cost incurred for a maid and child care[14] (working women still have full responsibility for all aspects of household management). In addition to the responsibilities of raising the children, part of a housewifes duty is to manage the relatively small incomes of their husbands and any other household resources. Non-traditional employment is a popular way for wives to contribute to the economic success of the household while still performing all their other duties. Non-traditional employment includes such practices as money lending at high interest rates (Ilsunolli), investing in homes or property,[15] rental properties, stocks or business, and also performing various kinds of part-time work at their home. The profitability of some of these practices, especially property investment, is so great housewives can frequently contribute more financially to their family than do wives who work full-time.[16]


             H is a 45 year old professional woman with a graduate degree who has worked for the past fifteen years not because she had to, but because she had a fulfilling job that was enjoyable. In the past she generally had the feeling that her family would be better off financially than the families of her friends because of her familys dual income. As the years passed she began to realize that the many investments her friends had been making over the years were yielding considerably more income than her full-time work, and while her friends had been investing time and effort into constantly improving their living arrangements she had not had time to do the same. She now found herself far behind her peers in terms of financial progress and the value and comfort of her housing.


             If a woman can overcome the social and financial hurdles she must then contend with, the most formidable of the obstacles, the structure of the Korean corporations themselves. The major Korean corporations do not have a history of hiring women into career positions and that tradition carries on today. In 1995 for the first time ever it was reported that the number of new female employees in 50 large corporations was over 10% (11.3%). this represents a steady rise from the 4.2% of five years ago[17] but is somewhat misleading when looked at as a lone figure.

             College graduate womens employment in large corporations consists of mainly clerical work. Employment of unmarried women only means short term employment which is a mechanism of maintaining low labor costs. Particularly, clerical workers and production workers are mostly unmarried.[18] Many women coming out of college are already burdened in the job hunt by humanities majors with little value in the job market and are further disillusioned by the scarce career opportunities for women. In the end they settle for a clerical or secretarial job at a company. As it becomes clear that the future holds no chance for promotion or reassignment to a career track job, they either quit or move on, trying to find a job with a future.


             Y, a graduate of Ewha Womans Universitys biology department worked in dead end secretarial positions for several years until she found, what she thought would be, a career position at a large hospital. After several years there, she realized the women with special skills (Md.s, research technicians and nurses) had lifetime careers while she was expected to marry and quit soon. Seeing no future possibility for promotion and under the impression that more education might be the ticket to a future career, she quit her job to study abroad.


             A 1992 study of womens work in banking and other industries conducted by the Korean Womens Development Institute, discovered that over 82% of employed women were single and just under 13% were married.[19] Korean corporations sentiment of not hiring women can be summed up by the following statement: Women have no commitment to their jobs, they quit when they get married, which is usually within a few years, and so they have no desire for career positions. Women, on the other hand, say they cannot find career positions because corporations wont hire them.

             The over 10% figure for new female employees then is misleading as it implies an opening of new career opportunities to women, when in  fact, it just reflects an expansion of the temporary job market for unmarried women; and only about 13% of that small 10% will still be employed in 5-7 years after they have married.

             Of those women who are able to find a good position and hang on to it past the traditional marriage/retirement age, they then face pressures within the workplace which can drive them back to the home whence they came. Coworkers start to feel uncomfortable having such an old unmarried woman hanging around the office and pressures to marry mount. For those few who were able to find career positions, various forms of job discrimination and harassment by male coworkers is common.[20] In a survey of 246 female newspaper reporters it was found that 48% of them felt some discriminatory treatment by male bosses and colleagues. Another 64% said they were victims of verbal abuse and insulting language. The two most common forms of discrimination those surveyed experienced were in assignment selections and promotions. Many also felt that they had been intentionally isolated or ostracized by their male coworkers.[21]



             Korea has just recently made the transition from a labor intensive developing nation to a fully industrialized nation.[22] The economic development phase which began in the early 1960s saw a shift from the traditional agricultural economy to an increase in light industries. By the 1970s there was another shift to heavy and chemical industries. And in the early 1980s an increase in technical industries.[23] During this transitional period, lower to lower middle-class women were employed in labor intensive jobs such as factories, and those in the managerial positions of the new industries were men,[24] men who were often supported by the government[25] which was comprised of men.

             In the early 1990s as the labor intensive jobs began decreasing (shifting overseas to less developed nations) and the techno-intensive (thought-intensive) job positions increased,[26] they were naturally filled by those that were at the top of the employment chain before the change. Shop or shift chiefs were now rising to management positions. As the entire economy improved, the entire employee structure was promoted and achieved a higher status of employment while retaining their positions relative to one another (employment amelioration). Women, who had always been at the bottom of the employment food chain, in pre-industrial Korea were still at the bottom, albeit a slightly elevated bottom, in post-industrial Korea. An example of this can be seen in the rise of the number of female teachers. As table 2 shows, the number of female primary school teachers increased from 29.1% in 1970 to nearly twice that, 53.7% by 1993. Female teachers in middle schools rose from 18.6% in 1970 to 48.5% in 1993, an increase of more than double. The number of female High School teachers jumped from 9.6% in 1970 to 23.2% in 1993, which again is an increase of more than double; while the number of female university teachers rose from 13.1% in 1970 to 21.2% in 1993 which is an increase of only 80%.



Table 2


Number of Female Teachers by Level of School (%)


















Source: Korean Womens Development Institute, Korean Women Now (Seoul: By the author, 1994), 15.




             At fist glance it would appear that the number of female teachers is increasing across the board, and indeed it is. This would seem to suggest an opening of the traditionally male held jobs to females, and this also is true. Unfortunately, it does not represent an equalizing of the hiring practices for women but instead shows the overall reduction in status of teaching positions in the lower grades of school, which is commensurate with the overall expansion of the economy. Those men who used to teach at the primary, middle, and high school levels are now retiring or moving on to other jobs and are leaving these, now less desirable, teaching jobs to women. This can be seen by displaying the same information contained in table 2 in a different manner (see table 3). As the lower grade teaching jobs slowly lose status the number of women slowly increases from the bottom up (note the high influx of women into middle and high schools) with the smallest increases being at the university level, which is still considered a high status job.



Table 3


Percent of Increase for Female Teachers

From 1970 to 1993


School Level

Amount of Increase

Primary School


Middle School


High School







             Schools are not the only place where this phenomenon of employment amelioration is taking place but it is occurring throughout the society in all job fields and industries, as we have seen with the clerical positions. The process does however, start from the bottom up and the instances of women making inroads into the male domain of salaryman are scarce. There is still no need for highly educated women in the Korean work force.[27]

             There are exceptions to the bleak career opportunities faced by most women; most notable are the teaching and health care professions. While doctors are mostly male, those in related fields, pharmacist, nurse and medical technician are staffed primarily by women who have a greater tendency to stay employed in these fields even after marriage and children. The lengthy specialized training required for such jobs seems to ensure their longevity in those positions. In the case of teaching, the undesirability of the  positions to men and the hours, which are perfectly tailored to mothers who must care for their children when school lets out, both contribute to the large number of married women who stay in their jobs.


             At present there is little need in the Korean economy for middle class [highly educated] women.[28] As a newly industrialized society just starting to farm out its low level manufacturing jobs to less developed nations, the process of employment amelioration has not yet raised the number of educated workers needed to a high enough level to warrant the mass employment of college graduate women. As the economy continues to expand, the need for more educated workers will slowly increase the number of college graduate career women. Major changes, however, will not occur until there is a change in the socio-economic structure of the society which presently serves as a psychological barrier against women leaving their homes and entering the economy.[29] Until that time educated Korean women will remain, as they are now: predominantly domestic.

Next Chapter - Chapter 6 Conclusion

                  [1] Okpyo Moon, Urban Middle Class Wives in Korea Korea Journal, 42.

                  [2] This survey was carried out in 1988 in the southern part of Seoul. 78.5% of the respondents had a junior college or greater education. 18 out of the 200 surveyed had regular paid employment outside the home. Ibid., 32.

                  [3] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 24.

                  [4] The term Salaryman in Korea is a generic name for any white collar worker, employed by a company as a regular, full-time employee (an equivalent in English may be businessman).

                  [5] Ibid., 23.

                  [6] Okpyo Moon, Urban Middle Class Wives in Korea Korea Journal, 33.

                  [7] Interviews, 100 married women.

                  [8] Data is from a survey of parents conducted in 1972 to ascertain what they considered to be an ideal child. 73% of the parents felt they did not discriminate between sons and daughters. 98% of them wanted sons to attend an elite university while only 66.7% wanted the same for their daughters. Chung, Socialization and Women in Korea, 177.

                  [9] Okpyo Moon, Urban Middle Class Wives in Korea Korea Journal, 39.

                  [10] Ibid., 37, 39.

                  [11] Ibid., 39.

                  [12] Ibid.

                  [13] In 1992 the average monthly pay of female workers was 544,401 won (U.S. $680.50), 53.8 percent of that of male workers. Korean Womens Development Institute, Korean Women Now, 22.

                  [14] Okpyo Moon, Urban Middle Class Wives in Korea Korea Journal, 40.

                  [15] Ibid., 35.

                  [16] Ibid., 40; Interviews, 100 married women.

                  [17] In 1990 the number of college graduate women hires was 4.2%. In 50 Corporations College Graduate Women Hires Exceed 10% for the First Time. Dong-A Ilbo, p. 1.

                  [18] Cho, Labor Force Participation, 167.

                  [19] Actual figure for married women is 12.9%. Yônse Daehakgyo Yôsôngyônguso (Yonsei University Womens Research Center), Yôsông gwa jikôp: Yôsôngyônguso 1995 nyôndo Chugye Haksul Simpojium, [Women and work: Womens Research Center 1995 Fall Science Symposium] (Seoul: By the author, 1995), 49.

                  [20] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 24.

                  [21] Yun Gyông-Hûi, Yôgija [Women Journalists] (Seoul: Hanguk yôgija kûlrôp (Korean Women Journalist Club, 1990), 83-93.

                  [22] Yu and Phillips, Korean Women in Transition, 24.

                  [23] Ministry of Education Republic of Korea, Education in Korea: 1995-1996, 60-61.

                  [24] Cho, Labor Force Participation, 159

                  [25] Ibid., 155.

                  [26] Ministry of Education Republic of Korea, Education in Korea: 1995-1996, 128.

                  [27] Okpyo Moon, Urban Middle Class Wives in Korea Korea Journal, 41.

                  [28] Ibid.

                  [29] Ibid.