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Asia/South Asia
S Korea's women smash through 'concrete ceiling'
Anna Fifield

          When the South Korean energy company controlled by Kim Sung-joo's father was divided among her family 16 years ago, her three brothers each got a slice. Ms Kim, like so many other women in Korea, got nothing. Undeterred, she set out to start up her own business.
"I left Korea after college and was exposed to western culture in the US and the UK. I saw a different world and realised that things could be done differently. I had more courage to do these things on my own," she says.
Now she employs 400 people 90 per cent of whom are women at her retail company, which holds the Marks and Spencer franchise in South Korea and recently took over the management of MCM, the German leather accessories manufacturer.
But Ms Kim is an exception. Although the number of women participating in South Korea's workforce is steadily increasing the female employment rate hit a record 49.8 per cent in May Asia's fourth largest economy remains out of sync.
South Korea's male-dominated corporate culture is still renowned for discrimination against female employees, many of whom are forced to give up their jobs when trying to juggle a career and children. Only a tiny fraction of women are advancing into the top ranks of business.
A recent report by the Ministry of Labour, which surveyed 546 companies, government agencies and state-owned corporations with more than 1,000. employees, found that women accounted for just 3.3 per cent of the total number of executives. Furthermore, 415 companies - 320 private and 95 government-related - did not have even one female with administrative or managerial authority (at vice-president, president, vice-CEO, CEO or board member level).
Although a quarter of staff at Samsung Group are women, only 12 of the 1,300 executives are women. Korea Telecom has only four female executives while Hyundai Motors and Posco, the steel maker, have none.
Women working in managerial positions say the glass ceiling or as one executive put it, the "concrete ceiling" -- is a result of long-standing tradition.
"Confucian traditions have completely restrained the way men and women work," says Ms Kim, the retail entrepreneur. "These traditions don't encourage women to participate in economic activities but instead keep them in their households."
Candace Kim, managing partner at Halcyon Search, an executive recruitment company in Seoul, agrees that there are still many ingrained prejudices hindering women. "Most women are under-utilised here in Korea they are employed as secretaries or translators and are not given opportunities to progress," she says. "Employers still think that there's no point in investing in women because they will just get married or pregnant and leave."
Ms Kim remembers recommending a woman to become chief financial officer of one of Korea's largest telecoms company: "I had a really tough time convincing them that she was the best person for the job. They thought she wouldn't last long because she wouldn't be able to handle the job or stand up for herself. But she is still there and now in a very good position."
A lack of supply in child care there are facilities for only 20 per cent of working women -- is also forcing many to give up work. There is, however, no question that attitudes are evolving.
"Among my generation -- people of about 40 -- women were disappointed and usually gave up their work because the environment was not that favourable," says Lim Ji-won, an economist at KJP Morgan. "But for people 10 years younger, it is completely different. The job market and male colleagues are changing."
In politics in particular, women are becoming increasingly prominent, with Han Myeong-suk appointed prime minister earlier this year and Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the assassinated authoritarian president Park Chung-hee, a front-runner to become the country's leader in elections next year.
Asked whether Korea was ready for a female president, Ms Park told the Financial Times in an interview last year: "Nobody knows for sure [ ... ] The conservative political arena has changed a lot -- there are more women than ever in the national assembly and the thoughts of the general Korean public are changing too. Before they used to think that women were not allowed in certain places but now we can work in any field."
Rising household expenses particularly the high cost of educating children -- make it not just desirable but necessary for more women to stay in work.
Increasing foreign investment is breaking down some barriers.
"Multinational companies are now realising that women are loyal but Korean companies are not there yet," says Ms Kim, the recruitment specialist.
Korean companies will be forced to change if they want to maintain their impressive growth. With families now having on average 1.08 children - the lowest fertility rate in the developed world - South Korea is facing an economic time bomb.
The Samsung Economic Research Institute last month warned that unless Korean employers become more flexible with working hours for mothers, the economy will suffer.
"The gender problem has existed for a long time but population growth was high so the economy grew fast," says Ms Lim, the economist. ' "But now it's different. Population growth is slowing so this society needs more participation from women to retain high growth."
Under syndication arrangement with FE


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