Women in South Korea are working longer hours and starting their own businesses in greater numbers than ever before. The gender pay gap in South Korea has consistently been an issue with women earning less than men. Korean conglomerates which are the backbone of the Korean economy have gotten a lot of bad press for not promoting women to top positions. The numbers are shocking. A government report shows that only 3.8% of all high ranking executives at Korea’s top 500 major companies were women. What is more shocking is that half didn’t even have a single woman in a top leadership position.

According to the latest OECD data, South Korea has the largest gender wage gap among developed countries at 34%. The average is at around 13%. Why is this happening? When Korean women have made so much progress over the years? Well, we first need to start from the start. Let’s take a look at the average working women in Korea.

How does the OECD Define Gender Pay Gap?

The OECD clarified that 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 added their data referred to full-time employees and self-employed people. Therefore the yearly average salary for women in South Korea is 35 million won a year compared to Korean men who earn 42 million won a year. Below is the Gender Pay Gap for their member countries.

Countries with the largest gender pay gap

  1. South Korea 34%
  2. Japan 24%
  3. Israel 21%
  4. The United States 18%
  5. Canada 18%
  6. Finland 17%
  7. The United Kingdom 16%
  8. Germany 16%
  9. Slovakia 15%
  10. Austria 15%

Sadly, South Korea has had the #1 spot on this list among the OECD countries for the 18th consecutive year since the organization started compiling the data back in 2002.

The Average Working Women in Korea 

Gender Pay Gap in KoreaThe life of the average working Korean woman in a chaebol or big company is not easy. The late-night company dinners that pressure females to drink and the constant sexism that still exists in the workplace make it very hard for them to get respect. Many look at Korea’s work culture and see Korean men being the workers and women being the caregivers. However, the last decade has seen women in Korea slowly start to change that culture as more and more women have joined the workforce, as well as start their own businesses. However, the life of the average working employee in Korea is not easy. Many have to come to work early, leave late. Some might argue that the priorities of the average working man in Korea are harmful, putting work before family and the office over the home. Is this what Korean women want to become?

Corporate Culture in Korea

The corporate world in Korea has and will be a man’s game for quite some time. The corporate culture resembles a military culture where there are very few women. Will Korean women be able to break into this culture at the top positions?  Statistics look bleak. Looking at companies like Citibank Korea who have a strong female executive force of 23.5% which is the most of any company, it seems possible for this men-centered culture to change. While the proportion of women in top leadership positions is only 3.8% there are signs of improvements when you compare it to 2013. In 2013 only 117 females were in top positions.

The shift is changing in the corporate but for many working females, it is not changing fast enough. Therefore many female entrepreneurs have decided to start their own businesses. The number of startups started by a female founder has gone up from 4% back in 2017 to close to 10% in 2021.

Why the Gender Pay Gap in South Korea is so Wide?

South Korea has one of the widest gender pay gaps for a developed country. The top companies in Korea have not set a great example of diversity in the workplace. A lot of these conglomerates prefer to hire men based on the fact that women are at “risk” of getting pregnant. It is already hard enough to juggle a family as well as a career for many women in Korea. Statistics show as only 33% come back to work after maternity leave. The Korean government makes it a requirement for big companies to offer a one year PAID maternity leave for women. So it is understandable WHY Korean companies prefer to hire men over women.

In a country where a woman became the president, you would think more and more companies would employ more women to top positions and create more jobs for women. However, the growth of jobs for women has been prolonged and at times nonexistent. Statistics also show that working women are paid only around 70% of what working men get.

A report by the Gender Ministry analyzed Korea’s top 500 major companies. Their data shows that less than 1,000 women were working at the top executive positions. If you look at these executive females in these major Korean companies, many of them are relatives of the shareholding families. This shows it is extremely difficult to climb the ladder and become a female executive without family connections. Therefore, it is understandable that it might take longer for females to climb the corporate ladder due to maternity leave. However, only 3.8% of females in executive positions is still very alarming.

Why There are so few female executives in South Korea?

Gender Pay KoreaStatistics show that female top-level managers leave their jobs 2 times more often than men in the same positions in Korea. Again this goes to the fact that in Korean culture, the woman is seen as the main caregiver. Therefore women in Korea exit their positions more often than men. Once they leave, it is very difficult to come back to work and reach the executive-level position. Most men in Korea do not have to worry about taking time off work to care for their children. This is the main reason there is so much under-representation of women at c-level positions in South Korea.

Even if a female makes it to an executive position, it is highly likely that they will be the only women in a room full of men. Therefore women feel pressured to work harder to prove themselves and continuously look for ways to build a connection with their largely male counterparts.

Women in Korea comprise about 53% of Korea’s labor force. However, they make up barely 5% of senior executive positions. Simple research into Korean female executives will show that most attended the top elite universities in Korea and have better academic credentials than their male counterparts. However, there are many discriminatory factors in Korea that reduce the demand for female executives. Some of these include gender stereotypes. An example would be Korean men being seen to have more traits like aggressiveness, ambitiousness, and dominance compared to Korean women who are seen as quiet, submissive, and obedient. If a Korean woman displays the same qualities as Korean men they are penalized for appearing too bossy and “unladylike”.

The Solution to Korea’s Gender Pay Gap

Therefore, what is the solution? The gender pay gap in South Korea will not be equal anytime soon. However, there are ways to close the gap. South Korea needs an updated and comprehensive equal pay reform/legislation in order to close the gender pay gap in South Korea. These reforms must not only deal with discriminatory practices against women but offer more benefits to women in Korea that work and take care of their children. Furthermore, Korean society must address cultural biases that continue to harm women in Korea by devaluing their work and putting them into specific gender roles. This is the only way South Korea can tear down the patriarchal structures that systematically disadvantage women in Korea.

The ultimate goal should be to make sure women in Korea have the same opportunities to develop as men. Korean accelerator programs need to have more female mentors and leaders to support female entrepreneurs. Companies in Korea also need to focus on preventing stereotypes and favoritism when deciding who to promote to executive-level positions. Evidence from companies all around the world shows that they perform better when they have more women in senior leadership positions. Therefore, the next generation of Korean companies needs to be the pioneers of a gender-equal working environment. They need to judge employees based on skill rather than their gender. Korean startups will become the future of Korea and it will be on them to change a culture that has been male dominant for decades.