Will woman power drive Moon Jae-in administration?
The focus should really be on diversity, rather than gender alone, as Korea strives to become a more equal society.
Last weekend, President Moon Jae-in nominated Kim Young-joo, a three-term legislator for labor minister, making her the sixth female minister in the new administration if approved.
After the onset of his administration, the President restructured the government to 18 ministries and 22 government agencies. Of them, the President pledged during his campaign to fill 30 percent of the minister posts with women. Kim, a former basketball player whose political career began with her participation in financial unions, will have to pass muster through a parliamentary hearing. If and when she does, female cabinet members will comprise 31.6 percent of the total in this fast-changing society whose roots are, however, still Confucian. Another Cabinet position, that at the newly minted Ministry of Small-and Medium-sized Companies and Startups, is still vacant.
The other five are Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, Environment Minister Kim Eun-kyung, Land Minister Kim Hyun-mee and Gender Equality Minister Chung Hyun-back and Pi Woo-jin, minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.
The increasing number of senior female policymakers are a welcome boon in Korea where, despite advancements, there needs to be more representation in every field.
There is slight improvement at the National Assembly and in the political arena. Out of five political parties, three are headed by women. The three are Justice Party Chairwoman Lee Jung-mi, Bareun Party Chairwoman Lee Hye-hoon and Democratic Party of Korea Chairwoman Choo Mi-ae. The number of female lawmakers has been rising steadily to now account for 17 percent in the current National Assembly. The figure is an increase from the previous years, but not close to the OECD average of 29 percent. And the increase is partly due to a recent law that mandates half of proportional representation seats have to be filled with women.
Whether more women in government decision-making posts can gradually spread to other fields remains to be seen.
“President Moon Jae-in keeping his campaign pledge to fill that 30 percent quota of Cabinet members is encouraging. There will be a message effect as state companies and large conglomerates will be watching the government’s moves,” said Lee Na-young, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “But the government should follow it up with specific measures to address gender equality in other job sectors and in terms of wages and quality of jobs for women,” she said. As for some concrete measures, the Korea YWCA has called for founding of a presidential committee on gender equality and expanding on the role of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, whose budget stands at 0.18 percent of the Korean government’s 2017 budget.
“We also welcome the 30 percent appointment of women in the Cabinet,” said Lee Joo-young, director at the Korea YWCA. “We will be following whether this can lead to President Moon’s other pledges to increase the representation of women in management in state-run companies and at central and local governments.”
Also, the expectation is that the “sheer” presence of more women in decision-making roles may well have created a chink in the old boys’ “wining and dining” culture still prevalent in society, Professor Lee said.
Both Professor Lee and Director Lee suggested the President should go one step further — fire Cheong Wa Dae official Tak Hyun-min who is in hot water for extreme sexist remarks made in publications — to show he is genuinely committed to advancing women’s representation in Korea. Tak has apologized for the comments and continues to work at the presidential office.
And eventually the prediction is it will spread to the corporate sector where women in boardrooms are not a familiar sight. The gender equality ministry announced Wednesday that in last year’s business report of the top 500 companies by sales, there were only 406 women executives in total, accounting for 2.7 percent, although it was an increase from 2.4 percent in 2015.
The lack of women in Korean corporate boardrooms compares internationally, according to a recent report by Corporate Women Directors International (CWDI). The portion of Korean female CEOs, the CWDI said, stood at the lowest among 20 nations in the Asia-Pacific region in 2016.
“The fact that the number of women in these posts is rising should not be cause for celebration. It really comes down to what results women in those posts can achieve,” said Yoon Sung-won, a professor at Suwon University.
“The focus should really be on diversity, rather than gender alone, as Korea strives to become a more equal society,” Lee of Chung-Ang University said.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha
Land Minister Kim Hyun-mee
Patriots and Veterans Affairs Minister Pi Woo-jin
Gender Minister Chung Hyun-back
Labor Minister-nominee Kim Young-joo
Environment Minister Kim Eun-kyung