Development of Gender Inequality & Female Empowerment in South Korea

The Development of Gender Inequality and Female Empowerment in South Korea: A Comparison between the 20th and the 21st Century


Gender inequality refers to the state of discrimination concerning the access and control of resources and benefits, and participating in decision-making based on gender. It also includes the issue of placing value of men over those of women in upholding and implementing their fundamental rights in the community (Lorber 20). The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender inequality as the feverish that arises in allocating distinct roles, activities, and behaviors that systematically favors one group of gender. Female empowerment on the other hand is the concern of giving women equal chance in the society to participate in the social-economic aspects of the society and improve their ability to control and access resources. It involves the process of lobbying economic, social, political, and even spiritual strength towards a marginalized group; in this case, it is women in order to raise their living standards as compared to the other groups (Lorber 26). Therefore, female empowerment strives to abhor the issue of gender disparity in the society.

In light of this, South Korea is a country found in East Asia that has revamped its political and economical structure over the last thirty years in a move to achieve the human development program. The country has been faced with gender equality problem since the Chosun period that ceased to exist in the 19th century, but it has made some tremendous improvements in that sector (Joshua and Prakash 201). This paper reviews the progression of gender inequality and female empowerment in comparison of past and present South Korea gender equality structure. Therefore, this paper highlights the contrast in women representation and participation in South Korea in comparison of the 20th century and the 21st century.

Development of gender inequality and female in relation to political, social and economic dimensions

The main purpose of this study is to delineate a contrast in past and the present of South Korea about their gender equity; more so, the relative status of women and men related to economic growth and development. Therefore, this section looks at gender equality in specific social-cultural, economic, and other structures.

  • Employment

Employment rate marks one of the key figures in determining the level of women participation in a country’s development structures. The average working hours in Korea is around 40 hours per week. Around 90 percent of working men utilize the 40 hours mark as compared to 77% in women. The OECD ranges 76% of men and 49 percent women labor for 40 hours or more than. This shows that many men in South Korea work in full time as compared to women; hence, there is a significant gender wage gap. One-third of women have only short-term job contracts and only 8% hold managerial and supervisory responsibilities. The Global Gender Gap Report 2012 indicates that the ratio of men to women in top managerial positions is 9:1. The lower ranks or levels in the workplace tend to be evenly distributed between male and female workers (Lorber 45). The overall number employed females are 49.2% as per the year 2011. Discriminatory in labor market is still evident especially in the top-level ranks in the organizations. As a result, the government implemented Comprehensive Plan for the Development Women Resources and the Female Employment Expansion Measures in 2006 to try to reduce employment disparity among women. Although the rate of absorption of women in employment and jobs is relatively high, the number of women leaving work at the age of thirty and above is alarming (Joshua and Prakash 166). They are pushed by social factors to leave work and concentrate on family responsibilities; hence, the huge turnover.

Unemployment rates in percentage

1999 2008 2010 2012
male female male female male female male female
6.0 18.1 3.6 2.6 4.0 3.3 3.4 3.0

Source ILC

In the last century, the situation was deemed worse in terms of female absorption in the work force and labor markets. Only around 20-30% of the total women who qualified to work were employed; conversely, they were mostly employed in the lower ranks positions. During the conflict in Korea, the main source of employment was military and guerilla warfare sergeants. This field was largely dominated by men by this time; hence, women were mostly jobless. It is evident that the employment rate in women is facing an upward trend in comparison between now and the end of 1900s; however, with relatively a slow pace.

  • Education

Education affects both economic and social situations of a country and it is one of the key factors in poverty eradication and human development. Eradicating illiteracy level in women promotes the living standards of people in the community. This is because the United Nations (UN) suggests that educated women have greater earning potential and more opportunities to participate in public life. They dedicate most of their resources in developing the community and promoting better children care. Traditionally, the Korean society women received minute formal education until the evasion of missionaries in the late 19th century. The Ewha Womans University started in 1886 as a primary school for girls by the Methodist missionaries. Subsequently, Paehwa girls and Chonsin Girl’s School were established in 1890. In the 1990, Korea had ten tertiary institutions for women and 28 percent of the population enrolled for higher education.

Trends in female secondary and tertiary enrollment in South Korea in the 20th century

1975 1985 1995
Secondary Tertiary Secondary Tertiary Secondary Tertiary
48 5 91 21 101 38


Currently, the education figures are appeasing because 95 percent of the people pass through high school education; women contribute to around 46 percent of this number. College and higher learning institutions enrollment elicits a little margin of disparity because men attribute to 61.7% compared to 57.6% in women. Unfortunately, women who attain higher education levels are few in the labor market as compared to those who only attain lower education levels (Doepke and Michelle 214). For example, in 2004, 57 percent of women were absorbed in the labor force while 59% with secondary were employed. Female education is significantly taking roots in South Korea because more women are enrolling in schools in the 21st century as compared to the yester years.

  • Political participation

The transformation of leadership in gender relations since the 20th century is one of the most rapid, and profound social changes in human history. Since human kind invented agriculture, men have dominated politics because only kings who ruled in the dynasty (Kyung-Ae 19). Women were viewed as occupying sharply different roles in society and they were restricted from the public sphere. South Korea also followed suit and secluded women from vying for any political seat or voting using the Confucian philosophy until the promulgation of the constitution in 17 July 1948. The clause found in Article 9, Paragraph 1 read, “the entire scope of citizens shall held alike by the law without discriminating people in terms of political, economic, social, or cultural life based on their sex, religion or social status.” This change relieved the Korean women since they were in a position to enter into the political sphere without legal restrictions.

Despite the important constitutional changes about gender discrimination, women political participation has remained lower than two percent since 1948 to 2000. The most notable event that encouraged women representation in politics is when President Kim Yong-Sam appointed three women cabinet ministers in 1993 (Kirk 202). The number of women in the parliament rose with a minute margin to around 5 percent in after a push by the then President Kim Dae-Jung in 1997. In 2004, the parliament amended the Political Parties Act and enacted that 50% of proportional representation must be composed of women. The act also mandated 10% of government spending towards advancement of women’s political power. As a result, the number of women elected in 2006 rose to 13 percent compared to 2.3 percent elected in 2002 (Kirk 34).

Thereafter, in 2006 South Korea made history by electing the first woman Prime Minister, Han Myeong-sook, who served from April 2006 to March 2007 when she resigned to pursue presidency position. Unfortunately, she did not clinch the top seat, but that did not deter Korean women from ascending to power. In 2013, Park Geun-hye became the eleventh and the first female president who managed position 11 in Forbes List of The Most Powerful Women in East Asia. Significantly, the number of women serving in South Korea national and local assembly has risen to around thirty percent due to the streamlined laws that encourage women to participate in politics.

  • Economic participation

Education and employment form the pillars of economic liberation and freedom. These two aspects aid people to identify, capitalize and seizure any opportunity that is available to secure financial resources. Economic participation also refers to the activities that are geared towards generating resources, which in turn improves people’s living standards. In the late 1980s, South Korea still struggled with the Confucian philosophy that kept women out of the economic sphere and made it a male dominated field. In the year 1960, South Korea economy struggled just with $80 per capita income to more than $22,000 in 2013. The figures rose after women rose into power and encouraged others to participate in economic activities and venture into the labor markets. High-Pippert asserts that women have power to influence others to incorporate into activities that are directly beneficial to them (18). Additionally, promoting gender equality propels the level of economic development as witnessed with the South Korean economy (Joshua and Prakash 156). Women preserve their resources towards community development because they are much engaged in social programs than men. Mostly, they are involved in community development program, micro finance and credit institutions that provide them with economic liberation. These activities lead to improvement of social amenities and infrastructure that improve the living standards of people.

According to the World Bank, South Korea employed 20% women in agriculture sector in 1990 as opposed to 16.3% of men. In 2010, the figures remain at stalemate with 6.9% women and 6.6% men working in the agriculture industry. The country shifted its main source of economic activities from agriculture to manufacturing industry and women are currently well represented in this sector. Women face challenges in economic activities because they carry a heavy burden of domestic responsibilities. Cultural barriers and social beliefs make women shy away from embracing economic activities in the financial sector. However, the technological advancement came in handy in assisting Korean women in economic participation.

Linda asserts that technology gives a huge boost to female empowerment in Korea because the level of networking in East Asia is on the upper trend (561). Women pass knowledge to each other concerning banking and accessing micro-credit finance to start small and medium enterprises. These achievements are a result of intervention of the civil society under the current leadership to ensure women access financial opportunities.

  • Social-cultural aspects

South Korea is a state that ails from the previous social beliefs that were in force during the Chosun period. The Korean history is quite confusing because in the Silla dynasty (around 900 A.D) women had more power than men did. In the 12th century, the Yi dynasty replaced Koryo dynasty and introduce Neo-Confucian rule that had a number of restrictions for women. The Confucian philosophy presented barriers to women freedom and participation in events of public matters, which later became part of the Korean culture (Moon 22). They were also restricted from making any decision regarding the family without including the husband. This was the case with most of the nations in the world; hence, it has been one of the major global menaces. Gender disparity has played role in depriving women the power to engage in social matters. The introduction of Christianity in South Korea shed some light on the importance of engaging in society matters.

In 1999, South Korea republic introduced the Gender Discrimination Prevention and Relief Act that made gender equality become a reality (Moon 17). In addition, the Ministry Of Gender Equality and Family culminated whose main task was to increase women participation in all aspects of society including having a voice in the family. This resulted to giving women the right to file a divorce if they felt uncomfortable in marriage. The start of the 21st century brought in some effective changes in women social-cultural activities because at least 30% of women gain access to banking and other financial institutions. Community development programs spread all over the country giving hopes to women voice in the society.

History of gender inequality transformation in South Korea

Previously, women were deprived ownership of property, rights to education, and monetary returns from work, financial opportunities, and the rights to influence the making of decisions within the family setting or the society. They were confined to household responsibilities and chores, and they involved men in any decision making process. South Korea was an economically deprived state that struggled to make ends meet in the early 1900s. The problem arose from the warring nature of the Korean republic that affected the economic state of the country in a negative way. The situation was dire to the government and people especially in providing jobs and basic needs to the public. Consequently, women were much affected due to their inferiority complex as compared to the men (Moon 18). They were subjected to disparity in social amenities, structures, and the financial opportunities.

However, the country started to uplift itself in the 1960s where it embraced social-economic modernization after the cease-fire in 1953. President Park Chung-hee laid fundamental frameworks that improved the working market economy starting from the year 1963. These frameworks aimed at ensuring there were work ethics and insisted on education on both genders in Korean society and culture. Similarly, women became incorporated in labor force within the manufacturing sector and this achievement is popularly referred to as “The Miracle on the Han River.” In 1960, the rate of working women was around 26.8 percent of the total population and by 1995, it rose to 47.6 percent. The country shifted from agricultural country to a manufacturing industry country; hence, it increased the rate of absorbing laborers. Elsewhere, women continued to venture into other social aspects such as politics unlike in the early 1900s where it was quite difficult (Lorber 27). In 1996, South Korea joined the organization for economic cooperation and development and since then, it has been considered as one of the Asia’s most developed countries. However, the country still lags behind in gender inequality index based on the Human Development index list. Human Development Index is a summary measure that looks at basic dimension of humans, which are long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and decent standard of living. Therefore, the government still requires implementing some structures to reach other developed countries such as Sweden in gender sensitivity.



Gender inequality in South Korea has been a reality in the 20th century based on a number of factors. Firstly, the country managed to get first women cabinet ministers in the late 1990s despite allowing women political participation in 1948. The local and national governments only managed to garner a mere 2 percent of women in the assembly. Secondly, employment rate during the 20th century only favored the men. For example, in 1960s the number of women working in agricultural sector was twice the number of men. The industry comprised of mainly manual work and the republic of Korea had shifted to manufacturing industry. Additionally, labor participation statistics only favored men and there was a huge wage fissure dividing male and female gender. Education also presents another aspect that gauges the rate of gender inequality and inferiority (Doepke and Michelle 201). Until, the push by missionaries to construct secondary and tertiary institution for women, the education sector remained a male dominated field. In most cases, women enrolled for the complimentary education and never proceeded to obtain the higher learning status.

Consequently, the 21st century has been a turning point for gender equity in South Korea. Political participation is one of the fields that the country has made huge steps in engaging the women. The constitution now grants women at least 30% representation in both assemblies. As a result, a female president currently runs the country and it had the opportunity of being served by a female prime minister. This shows that the people of South Korea have despised the ancient mindset of despising women participation. The economic status of women is on the rise and it is reflected on the national per capita income of $22,000. According to Doepke and Michelle, empowering women promotes economic development (68).


There are major differences in the state of women in South Korea in the 20th century and the 21st century. The country discovered the need to allow women in social, political and economic dimension to foster development in the country. However, much is required to be done especially in the field of employment. Women are still employed in the low rank levels despite their engagement in education. In spite of these few challenges, Domjahn believes South Korea has made notable developments and other developing countries should emulate (76). Therefore, gender inequality is facing a downward trend in South Korea due to efficiency in female empowerment.


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