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Expansion of opportunities

Educational opportunities expanded with the decision in 1971 to end the entrance examination system for middle schools, followed by the same decision in 1974 for high schools. The ratio of female elementary graduates who entered middle schools rose from 70 percent in 1975 to 99 percent in 1985. But female advancement into higher education did not keep pace with that of secondary education because of the cultural preference for families to give priority to sons, with only 36 percent of students in higher education being women in 1995.

Table 6-16. Advancement rate into tertiary education

Since the 1980s, the market economy began to displace the state-led industrialization model in Korea. In addition, the advances in information technology changed the methods and structure of production. The increasing role of services in the economy provided more job opportunities for women than in the industrial sector, which led to arise in the female labor force participation rate. More educated women were entering the labor force as well as an increasing number of married middle-aged women.

The government set up “Working Women’s Centers” to provide vocational training for married women who were re-entering the workforce. The centers were state-funded and operated by women’s groups, such as the YWCA, and provided short-term job training courses for office administration, dressmaking, cooking and patient care. Large companies also tried to hire more married women with university degrees in response to the labor shortage caused by the economic boom of the 1980s.

The increase of married women in the labor market did not mean there was no interruption in careers due to marriage, births and childcare. The work participation pattern of women by age had an M-shape, with a steep decline in the late 20s as many women married and had children. Since the 2000s, the trend toward late marriage has meant this decline is now seen in the early 30s for women (Figure 6-22).

During this period, women formed organizations that took a leading role in the campaigns for democracy and women’s rights. The labor movement for clerical women workers became active and won several cases to abolish gender discrimination in terms of recruitment and retirement benefits. One successful legal case was the ending of discriminatory personnel practices for female bank clerks in July 1991. The first lawsuit case against sexual harassment in the workplace was finalized in 1993 after a seven-year struggle in the civil courts. The case attracted public attention to the fact that sexual harassment is not related to personal issues, but is a matter of working conditions, leading to sexual harassment prevention education at work.

Women’s groups suggested various policies and laws to curb violence against women and other violations of their human rights. This encouraged the government to adopt policies that promoted gender equality, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. It was introduced in 1988 and marked a turning point in the employment of women by banning discrimination against women when it came to hiring, wages, training, job placement, retirement and dismissal. And for the first time, the central government created in 1988 an agency to oversee women’s affairs, although it was eliminated in 1998 as part of an effort to reduce the state bureaucracy.

Source : SaKong, Il and Koh, Youngsun, 2010. The Korean Economy Six Decades of Growth and Development. Seoul: Korea Development Institute.

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