Women in the Workplace: Republic of Korea

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

The Koreans have a saying, “There is more worth in one hour today than in two hours tomorrow,” which is used to suggest that doing something immediately and taking action, even if imperfect, is better than procrastinating. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is one of the world’s most established and well-developed nations, but is currently behind in women’s current participation in the workforce. In this analysis, South Korea will be evaluated on the basis of women’s access to education, labor force and industry participation demographics, and wage gaps to help present a basic picture of what the workplace looks like for women in the country and ways to improve with one hour today instead of two hours tomorrow.


As of 2017, the World Economic Forum's (WEF) educational attainment ranking for women in South Korea was 105, which has drifted from its ranking of 92 in 2006. This change was influenced by the increase in rankings of enrollment in primary education (84), enrollment in secondary education (101), and enrollment in tertiary education (112). The decrease in rankings does not indicate no improvement occurred in those years, but rather suggests that South Korea simply has progressed at a slower rate than other countries. According to UNESCO, over 58 percent of South Korean tertiary students in 2016 were men, despite female enrollment having grown substantially since 2000 when only a third of the tertiary student population were women.

Traditional Industries

The WEF ranked South Korean women 121st out of 144 in estimated earned income with the average woman earning 63 percent of what the average man earns with only 56.2 percent of Korean women participating in the professional workforce. According to data compiled from an online repository of company filings operated by the Financial Supervisory Service, two-thirds of “South Korea’s top 500 companies were found to have zero women at the executive level…” and women only “amounted to 406, or 2.7 percent, of the total number of executives” in 2017.

The statistics specifying industries where women are executives leads to further insight. The number of female executives was the highest in the small retail and wholesale sectors at 4.9 percent while the construction industry had the lowest at 0.8 percent. Another interesting note is that the “financial sector had the highest rate of women workers at 53.7 percent, but the ratio of female executives fell to 2.7 percent from 3.0 percent…[showing] that an increase in women’s economic activity [does] not naturally [lead] into the expansion of their seats at the management level.”

To change these realities, the government “plans to increase the scope of its affirmative action towards businesses, which calls for companies with relatively weak workplace equality to submit plans to hire more women and place more of them in management positions.”

Wage Gap

Based on survey information collected by the WEF in 2017, South Korea is the also 121st ranked country out of 144 in terms of gender wage gap. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) cites the gender pay gap in Korea as the highest in the OECD; “Women working in Korea earn only 63% of what men earn” and “only 56.2% of women in Korea are employed and many women withdraw from work when they have children.” South Korea seems to be aware of the situation. Kim Hee Jung, the Minister of Gender Equality and Family and Co-Chair of the Korea Gender Parity Taskforce, cited three misconceptions impeding gender equality:

  1. If women gain more opportunities, men will lose out.

  2. Childcare and housework are jobs for women, and work-life balance issues are female concerns.

  3. By using [daycare centers and childcare leave], women are creating hassles for their employers and colleagues.

To combat these misunderstandings and narrow the gender pay gap, Kim Hee Jung discussed next steps for the task force including launching the “Women’s Resources Academy, which aims to increase the number of female managers” and the “Women’s Resources Database, which will match qualified female candidates with appropriate jobs.” The Korean Ministry of Gender Equality & Family also has recently implemented “incentives and government certifications for companies that have family-friendly policies for both men and women.” For example, “if a mother uses her childcare leave and then a father wants to use his childcare leave, the government will pay 100% of his first month’s salary instead of the 40%… [while] providing financial support to companies who need to hire temporary replacements for staff on childcare leave.”


As the WEF’s 118th-best country in terms of overall gender gap, the Republic of South Korea undoubtedly has room to improve in promoting women’s roles in its society. South Korea’s slide from its WEF 2006 ranking of 92 indicates progress can still be made. While raw numbers show improvements, South Korea has slowly been passed by other countries. Despite significant economic progress, other countries have outpaced South Korea in bridging the discernable gender gap. If South Korea can spend an hour today by taking action now, it can avoid a wide gender gap tomorrow.

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