What It's Like Working in Korea as a Woman

While working as an expat in Korea for a large Korean conglomerate the one question I always got when speaking with a non-Korean resident was, “What is it like working in Korea as a woman?”.

I am asked this question over and over again and it makes me wonder why people ask. I suppose Korea is not known for amazing gender equality but, then, again, neither is the United States. Inherent in this question is the thought, “It must be tough working as a woman in Korea for a large Korean conglomerate dealing with very rigid gender roles and expectations. How was it for you?

I suppose they have a point. Statistically speaking, the data makes Korea look bad from a working woman’s perspective.

  • Highest female workplace dropout rate of the developed world
     
  • Largest gender wage gap between men and women amongst the OECD at 39%

  • Longest working hours of OECDs making it unfriendly for families and working moms

  • Low female employment rate at 55%, lower than OECD average of 65%

 

Source: Financial Times

As is still the case in many parts of the world (as well as in the US), Korean corporate culture is a men’s game and driven by general societal norms.

Things have changed but the traditional roles of women in the home and men at work reigns large. This, of course, affects work culture for women in Korea. Some of the differences I noticed were things I didn’t mind and actually took advantage of. Feminists might say I was playing into the gender norms and guilty of encouraging the status quo. But, in some ways, it was quite nice not to have to play by the boys’ rules. Here some of the differences I noticed while working there.

You get an extra day off each month for your period.

Did you know that Korean labor laws dictate that women are allowed to take one day paid menstrual leave a month? I’m sure many female activists would say this is absurd but many women fully took advantage of this extra “vacation” day a month. TheAtlantic Monthly explored this topic and the debate around whether it stunted gender equality. I guess it does cement social gender roles in corporate culture but, honestly, many women definitely took advantage of this law and very gladly!

You can be excused from heavy drinking after work.

Korea is famous for the evenings of post-work heavy drinking where teams go out and bond over shots of soju. They play drinking games, get rowdy, and sometimes bully people into drinking. But, if you’re a woman, you can most definitely get a pass on the rowdy drinking and won’t be bullied into drinking the way that men are. Now, this may also hurt you since this is when a lot of collegial bonding happens. It’s those bonds and relationships that can get you recognized and promoted especially if you build a close relationship with someone more senior. Oftentimes you’ll see the boys club in action up close and personal. Many executives needed to have company for dinner since they had to stay late at the office. The majority of these executives are men. The people they would call out to join them for dinner and drinks would be their fellow male underlings. Women were often not invited (and probably glad to miss out). Come promotion time, it’s often the male underlings that tended to get promoted for building those relationships with their higher ups.

You get yelled at less often than your male counterparts.

The hierarchical nature of Korean corporate culture and Korean philosophy around management means that people in the office get yelled at...a lot...very publicly. I have heard many grown men ages 40+ be publicly shamed by their managers in the open office space. I’m not sure where it stems from perhaps it’s from the military culture or general Korean culture where it is very common to raise one’s voice to get a point across. Whatever the reason, in my experience it was more common for men to yell at other men over women. The scolding between male manager and male direct report was always uncomfortable to witness but women often were exempt.

You are judged more than men.

Perhaps this is true of Korean society in general but I felt that in the workplace women were much more scrutinized than men. It’s not uncommon for a male employee to tell a female colleague, “You’re very pretty.” These sorts of remarks on appearance are very common in Korea in general but when they are brought into the workplace it definitely feels right out unprofessional. Men may also receive this kind of comment but most likely it is more common for women to be judged based on their looks. There is a lot of pressure for women to conform to social expectations, ie, to be married, to have kids. I have also heard anecdotal stories about women being discriminated against during an job interview for being divorced (double standards) and other women hiding their divorce from their coworkers because of potential discrimination. This scrutiny and judgment are really unfortunate.

There is an obvious lack of women leaders and role models

Similar to the US, there is a dearth of female leadership. It’s still a strong men’s game. As mentioned before, Korean working women have the highest workplace dropout rate amongst the OECD. The pressures of marriage and children in addition to long hours required at work make it seemingly impossible to do it all. The current female President Park Geun Hye is trying to get more women to “lean in” by changing government programs and policies but the road is still long.

One last thing I noticed was that for many expat women who are or were working in Korea, it was just easier to conform rather than fight against the grain. For example, many women play into the strong culturally perceived roles of men and women. If a woman wanted to resign for a better opportunity or take a leave of absence because they were unhappy at work, they might say that they needed to leave to focus on their husband and marriage. Or, they might tell their manager that they’re trying to get pregnant and needed time to focus on that. It’s because these kinds of family-related reasons are much more understandable to upper management than the real reason. I’m not sure I’ve heard of any men who have used family as a reason to take time off or leave a job but for women it’s much easier to to play into the culture norms than to fight it.