| Rose Kim |
SEOUL, South Korea (WP-BLOOM) – When Choi Myoung-wha graduated from Korea University in 1988, many of the nation’s biggest companies didn’t hire women in their annual recruitment drives.
Armed with a degree in French literature, Choi landed a job at Samsung Group through a special programme thanks to her language skills.
Today, South Korea’s first female president Park Geun-hye is pushing for more female managers in public service and calling for more measures to help working mothers.
Women are hired fresh out of college by South Korea’s family-controlled conglomerates, though they still earn less than men on average. Job conditions continue to improve for women, says Choi, who heads Hyundai Motor Co’s strategic marketing group.
“It’s definitely a great era for working women,” Choi, who was Hyundai’s first female vice president when she joined South Korea’s largest automaker in 2012, said in an interview. “Society is biased in women’s favor because there hadn’t been a balance until recently.”
South Korea didn’t pass a law guaranteeing equal employment rights until April 1988, the same year that Choi graduated from university.
The country had just elected its first president, and the capital Seoul was preparing to host the Olympic Games that were regarded as a ‘coming out party’ for the country’s newly-industrialised and democratised economy.
Choi points to developments since that she says have skewed the employment environment in women’s favour, including a ban since 1999 to give preferential points to men applying for jobs in the civil service because they have to serve in the military. Women are exempt from conscription in South Korea.
Given the more favourable working conditions now, it’s up to women to break free of the mentality that they are different from men and deserve special treatment, Choi said.
“There is nothing in the world that becomes more difficult just because you are a woman,” Choi, 49, said on November 27 at Hyundai’s headquarters in Seoul. “A successful person can ‘happen to be’ a woman; she isn’t successful ‘because’ she’s a woman or ‘despite’ being a woman.”
Boosting the number of female executives is essential to fully tap South Korea’s talent pool given its aging population, said Kim Yongah, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co in Seoul.
“While many more women are entering the job force, retention remains to be a huge challenge,” Kim said in an e-mail. “It is critical to address both recruiting women to fill the pipeline, and development and retention of talent to grow them as leaders.”
Park has called for more family-friendly steps to be adopted, such as increasing the number of day-care places for children of working mothers and boosting subsidies to companies to offer flexible working hours.
The government also set a goal to have more female managers in public service, including increasing the proportion of women on government committees to 40 per cent by 2017, from 25 per cent in 2012.
Women made up two per cent of executive committees at Korean companies last year, trailing the eight per cent average in 10 Asian countries that McKinsey researched in 2011, based on latest available data. They accounted for 10 per cent in Europe and 14 per cent in the United States at the end of 2011.
While the percentage of women who attained tertiary education has surpassed that for men since 2009, their pay hasn’t caught up.
Women earned an average 68 per cent of a man’s monthly salary last year, compared with 52 per cent in 1988, the year Choi entered the workforce, according to government statistics.
Hyundai currently has two female vice presidents, including Choi. Cho Mi-jin was hired in August to head the company’s leadership develpment.
While she welcomes having more female workers and executives, Choi says setting a target risks having some women taking up roles they aren’t fully prepared for. The mother of two teenage boys, who didn’t enjoy pro-family policies when she started out, says women need to prioritise what’s important.
Before joining Hyundai, Choi spent two decades in marketing positions at companies including McKinsey and LG Electronics Inc.
“As a working mother, there are going to be trade-offs,” Choi said. “To succeed, you have to accept that and make the appropriate adjustments.”
Choi’s choice was to hire help for the things she couldn’t attend to, including household chores, so she could maximise the time spent with her children outside work. For that, she has the support of her husband, an architecture professor she met in college and married upon graduation.
Although the family is close, Choi says she doesn’t have photos of her personal life on her desk and thinks only about work as soon as she sets foot in the office.