Archive for June, 2010

A View of the Korean Women’s Movement

by on Sunday, June 20th, 2010


Former "comfort women" demonstrating in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul

Former "comfort women" demonstrating in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul

                                                                                                                                                                                 Korea/Wednesday/demo2/CarolDussere                                                                                                                              Korea/Wednesday/demo3/CarolDussereIn 2000, I interviewed Prof. Kim Sook-jin, a teacher of women’s studies at a Korean university, for the cross-cultural textbook I used in a language class for English majors at Dongguk University. The chapter on women’s history began with a discussion of the women’s movement in the United States and then moved on to the Korean women’s movement. [For a gloss of patrilineality, please see the links at the right.]


Kim Sook-jin’s views

In Korea we’re getting going with our support of women-friendly political candidates. We have had more success in organizing demonstrations, putting pressure on politicians and educating the public. At first we were primarily interested in changing the laws. Now, I would say the laws are pretty good, although enforcing them remains a problem. We’re still working on that. We’ve organized demonstrations, such as the Wednesday demonstration for the “comfort women.”

Then, when an employer has been found guilty of discrimination against women, we organize a demonstration for that. Unfortunately, we haven’t found the media very responsive to feminist views.

However, things are changing. Even if they don’t express feminist views publicly, women news reporters and anchors are helping to improve the status of women. However, Korean society is still very conservative. We are making a lot of progress in getting rid of the patrilineal system. [A patriline is a line of descent from a male ancestor to a descendant of either sex in which the individuals in all intervening generations are male.] We are also trying to change the customs around memorial services. We’re trying to work with the media to raise these issues, to change attitudes about women’s sexuality, to change everyday life. There’s a lot of resistance. For example, sex before marriage is fairly well accepted now. But if the couple goes to a yŏgwan, and the woman produces a birth control device, the man usually doesn’t like it.

As I mentioned earlier, the principle of equal employment opportunity has been well established in the law, but not in practice. The women’s organizations are demanding improvements in recruiting and promotion. Unfortunately, with globalization having such a devastating effect on the economy, the government doesn’t want to intervene in the private sector. It’s not properly administering, supervising or monitoring compliance with laws like the Equal Employment Act. Besides, 60% of women who work outside the home are employed in very small businesses with four employees or less. Even professional women and office staff in large organizations run into problems in hiring, promotion and salary. It’s illegal to force a woman to quit when she gets married or has a baby, but it often still happens. The Ministry of Labor is supposed to enforce the laws against discrimination, but there aren’t enough supervisors to do the job properly. The labor movement is also focused on helping men.

The division of labor hasn’t changed. Over the ten years I’ve taught women’s studies, I have seen changes in the attitudes of my students. Everyone now agrees that women and men are equal—but it’s in their brains, not in their hearts. Deep down, the men have a problem with it. They think they have to be the breadwinners, they have to make more money and they have to have higher positions. The men seem to think that if women get jobs, they’ll lose theirs. They don’t want any more competition. If one of my male students agrees that he would be happy staying at home and keeping house, the other students laugh at him. However, the current economic and social structure requires women to work outside the home. Society itself is demanding that women contribute, and they have skills to offer. Sharing housework has become necessary. I think a male student who can’t accept that should consider whether he really wants a family.

In employment you see a vicious cycle. Management doesn’t want to invest in women because they think the women will just quit in a few years. On the average, women work only five or six years. So, because the company doesn’t invest any money or training in the women or promote them, women have little sense of accomplishment or vision for the future. In 1997 we conducted a survey of the five biggest companies, and we discovered that only 2% of the female employees were promoted above the assistant manager level. A lot of women aren’t even hired, even if their credentials are as good as the men’s. It’s easy to say that if you want to be promoted you have to work hard. However, we’ve discovered that even those women who knock themselves out taking care of housework, raising children and producing better work than their male colleagues—even those women are discriminated against because they’re women and it’s the man’s job to support the family. So it’s no wonder that women quit. 

I think it’s best if students learn from experience—their own, their mothers,’ their girlfriends.’  Maybe they were laid off because they were women, or there was some problem of sexual harassment at work. I encourage them to express their own ideas and opinions. In real life, a student can call an organization or send an email. I tell the students I understand why they might feel pressured to keep silent. They don’t want to get labeled as feminists.

1994 interviews with two American executives, friends of mine provided more information about the position of women in the white-collar workplace. 

Lawrence’s story

Employees of the bank I work for organized a union some time ago, but the men in the union had virtually abandoned it so they wouldn’t have to deal with the women’s issues. The women had more votes, and they were saying, “Give us a 30% salary increase and you take a 5% salary increase. Give us a career path. Don’t make us leave when we get married.”

The men complained, “They don’t understand the sophistication of the problems that we have.” They also wanted a career path and more money, but they saw their issues as much different. “Really, how can we take this seriously when we have to sit across the table from women who are making these ridiculous demands that have nothing to do with business.” I was rooting for the women on that one.

The way we treat women here is just outrageous. The women have the same credentials as the men have, but we pay them very little. Up until two years ago we insisted that they leave either when they got married or when they reached twenty-five, whichever came first. We have changed that system, so that now they can stay. And we’ve played some catch-up on salary, so that they no longer make half of what the men do, but it’s still no more than say 65% of the male salary.

We hire only the graduates of leading universities—Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University. The job interviews are incredibly sexist. We ask women job candidates, “Will you do the three C’s—coffee, copies, cleaning?” Anyone who seems to have a negative reaction is not hired. The interviewers are the senior Koreans and me. We would each score people separately. In the early days when I didn’t speak much Korean, I was looking for body language, eye contact, poise, energy, that sort of thing. At the end of these sessions we would compare our scores, and the correlation was amazing—but only with the men.   We had a woman here who had a double major in math and economics. I thought, “My God, if she stays with us, if we treat her halfway decently, she’s going places.” They didn’t ask her a single question about her studies. They asked her about her religion, what her mother did, what her father did, if they were living together, had there ever been a divorce in the family, when she was going to get married. I mean, the more talented a woman was, the more demeaning the questions were. They did hire her.

About a year after she was hired, an anonymous discrimination complaint was filed with the Bureau of Labor Standards and the National Labor Relations Board. The male staff of the Labor Relations Board visited the male staff of the bank. During the time it took to drink one cup of tea, it was decided that there was no problem, that we were really the most progressive of Korean institutions. That was the end of it. Six months later this woman quit. I was really sorry to see her go. I had insisted on including her in departmental lunches. But I got comments, even from the youngest male staffer, like, “She’s arrogant.”

“What do you mean ‘She’s arrogant’?”

“She seems to be very impressed with herself and what she knows.”

“But is she right? Is she just demonstrating that she knows something?”

“Well, she’s—she’s just very arrogant.”

No one would listen. When I tried to bring a moderating influence into the conflict, they laughed at me as much as they laughed at her.

Some time ago we took a woman who’s been working with us for five or six years and made her an officer in a new investment support team. It was very much a token position, but Korean management saw this move as being really avante guarde, really ground-breaking. I said, “Fine, now that’s entry level. How much longer before she becomes an assistant manager?” People just looked at me like I was from the moon. Ultimately, she left for the States, where she’s doing quite well. Then people forgot about women officers.

At my home bank States, we had a couple of Korean American women, like Sandra Noh, who is a vice-president. When she came out to Korea for a brief visit, I was delighted to show her around. She was far more advanced than the male staff here, so that she could actually teach them. People looked at her as quite an oddity. There was a lot of giggling, a lot of discomfort and a lot of sexual innuendo from the men, but I saw that the women were cheering her on.

Scott’s story

Several incidents here have led me to change some of my views. I tend to be conservative. But there was an incident involving one of our so-called secretaries, a woman with a master’s degree who speaks and writes English as well as anybody in our office. They were using her to type, answer the phone, and get coffee during the meetings just because she’s a woman. After seeing how capable she was, I decided she had talent and assigned her a couple of projects, minor things that probably nobody else would have wanted.

She said, “Look, I’d really like to do this, and I think I can do the work, but I can’t accept it.”

So I suggested giving her more responsibility to some people in such a way that they thought it was their idea. I gave her assignments, and she did very well, so I gave her more. But then it reached a point where the guys said, “Wait a minute. She’s doing almost what we do.”

Their rationalizations for the inequality could be very convincing–like she’s going to get married and quit and the company will have wasted all this training on her. But I resisted. Then a year later she got married and her husband ordered her to quit her job. In hindsight, I still don’t agree with wasting talent like that, even if a woman is only going to be around for another year or two. And of course her salary was nothing like the men’s. The company keeps two sets of payroll records in order to obscure the fact that women are being paid fifty percent of what men are.

Quote from the International Herald Tribune

(See the link at right “Equality for Women?”) In a report on an international survey: “Only in South Korea and Japan did more people say women were better off than [they] said men were, or that they were the same. It may be that men there ‘resent being married to their company. and also that there are fewer expectations of women….But that’s not equality.'”

Two Women in the Korean Workplace

by on Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Women do not have it easy in the Korean workplace. Many white collar jobs consist of finding employment in your early twenties as a bank teller or “office flower” (doing coffee, copies and cleaning, as well as running errands, doing minor assignments and bolstering male egos), never getting promoted and being forced to retire after your family (particularly your father) has pressured you into getting married when you’re around twenty-five. There are ways around it, though. Here are two such stories,

 Around 2002, I interviewed a friend of mine for the English-language textbook I wrote for my students at Dongguk University.

 Jin’s story

jinI’m in middle management at a multinational corporation. I think it’s important for women to feel confident on the job. Of course, that means you need to know you’re competent.  Nowadays I do, but I was very different when I started working. I was a very typical Korean woman—you might say a “little office flower” who couldn’t talk with foreigners and who was very dependent on the managers for everything. When I made mistakes, my superiors were happy to cover for me. Later I realized that they liked being able to show that they could do that and they didn’t actually want me to have any responsibility of my own. I was also very Korean in that I was far too concerned about what other people might think of me.

Even though my university grades in English were good, my English wasn’t. This of course is a big problem when you’re working for a company which uses English for almost all of the documents and all the correspondence. But I preferred using fax and email to talking over the phone. If I did have to telephone a foreign partner, I’d wait until after everyone else had left the office. By that time I’d have written down everything I had to say so I could just read it aloud. If they asked questions which I wasn’t prepared to answer, I’d just say one or two words like ‘contract’ or ‘two weeks.’ 

One weekend I came over to work and found a visitor there from our home office in Germany. I said hello but just ducked my head down and ran to my desk because I was afraid he might want to talk with me. Several hours later, he came to my desk with a piece of paper that had just one word written on it, “light.” On the weekends the light switches in the office didn’t work. You had to call someone at the building office to get them to turn the lights on. The visitor was very understanding and was making it as easy as possible for me to communicate with him.

Three years after I started working here, I had an opportunity which changed my life. The company had set up a project in Thailand to discuss in great detail all the procedures of the business and specifically how they are handled in each country. I was sent as the Korean representative in the customer service module. Now, since I’d been on the job I’d been working on a master’s degree in commercial education—I’d just graduated—so I hadn’t had time to work on my English.

In Bangkok all the people in a particular module would be in the room together, about twenty people. The foreign consultant would introduce an issue, and then people would discuss all aspects of it from A to Z. I couldn’t speak, so every night I’d work until midnight writing down what I should have said at the meeting. The next morning I would give my paper to the consultants and explain that this is what I’d wanted to say the day before. At first they were shocked and said, “You should have told us this yesterday.” They were annoyed because they’d already moved on to something else. But since I felt I had no other options, I continued to do this every day. Once I also made a big mistake. In most countries, when an engineer is sent out to a customer, the charge for his work is computed on an hourly basis. In Korea, it’s on a daily basis. I’d missed that. By the time I saw my mistake, everything had already been agreed and cosigned. When I explained what had happened, I was told, “Sorry. That’s business.” There was no way to put it right without renegotiating the whole thing. Eventually a senior consultant did find a way to fix it, but in the process I learned that I had to be responsible for my mistakes and I had to be very careful.

Nowadays, I know that I’m a second language learner and that this is okay. But back then I was trying to hide it. Since I was very quiet when people were speaking English, I felt I also had to be very quiet when they were speaking Korean. Otherwise, people would know I wasn’t just shy.

Fortunately, there were two German ladies, a woman in my module and her friend, who looked at this Asian woman who always worked until midnight, and they approached me to ask if someone was putting pressure on me to work like this. When I said no, they decided they were going to show me how to enjoy myself. They asked me to go out and do things with them after work, and they were very persistent. I finally agreed. We went to a Thai massage place and then to a restaurant for dinner. Later I also went out to some nightclubs to dance with my colleagues and discovered that people who did that kind of thing were not strange. They were very normal people who were just relaxing and enjoying themselves. I learned that that was an important part of life. Since then I’ve discovered there’s a big world outside my little box and I can go out and see it on my own. I even went to Mexico and Peru by myself to look at the ancient ruins.

Back in Korea, I’ve found that for a Korean woman the workplace can be tricky. I know I’m an expert in my own little area. If people speak directly about issues, then the meeting can be short and efficient. I was among a small group of women who did speak directly until we discovered that everyone hated us. I heard that people said I was arrogant, didn’t know anything and just behaved like a foreigner and hung around foreigners.

So I discussed the situation with the other women, and we decided to make compromises. We just let them have their meeting and after the Korean men had left the room we talked with the foreigner privately. If this was someone who had been working in Korea for a long time, he understood. If not, we just explained very briefly. It was easy enough to distinguish between employees who were competent and those who were not.

After watching the successful women in my company, I saw that they tried to be very polite with the other Koreans and just behave in a way that people could accept. They were very kind to everyone and were careful not to hurt people’s feelings. Then they talked privately about their own area when they needed to. They had learned to stay focused on what they were doing.

A year or so earlier I interviewed my friend Ji-young. We started by talking about a place where she was doing some work, a company where the two secretaries were nver asked to go to lunch with everyone else, which was very much different from my own experience of work-related lunch out, where everybody went together.

Ji-young’s story

ji--youngI did some interpreting at a company where all the male employees had lunch together.  They never asked the women to join them.  The two women had lower positions.  They were very reserved and seemed to lack confidence in themselves.  They reminded me of myself as the graduate of a commercial high school.  I began to work in 1984, it was even before the end of the semester.

It’s customary for commercial high school students to start out as job trainees.  In my division there were two other women.  One was a university graduate, and the other one was just like me, but two years older.  There were about ten or so male workers—all at least ten years older than I was.  At school the teachers always told us to obey the men.  All I knew was to say yes—always—to make coffee, to behave like an “office flower.”  I felt as if I had just been tossed into the water and told to swim.

Since everybody was older, I didn’t know how to behave.  I went to girls’ schools, and at that time we were supposed to be very, very deferential to the teachers.  My father was working abroad, and both my brothers are younger than I am.  I didn’t know how to interact with men.  I would answered the phone, and the caller would want to talk to the guy in front of me, who happened to be thirteen or fourteen years older, but he didn’t have a title, so I couldn’t address him as, maybe Kim Taeri.  I was supposed to call him by name, but I felt very awkward doing that.  It was taboo for a young girl.  So I had to run over to him and tell him he was wanted on the phone.  Anyway, I think those two women kept their distance from the men in the office because they felt that they weren’t as good as they were.

I have an M.A. in translation from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and I do both translating written texts and oral interpretation. I find translating at home very attractive, but not everyone is satisfied with it.  A person has to be very well organized and schedule her time properly.  I work very fast, directly on the computer, so I can make 100,000 won in two hours.  I have never missed a deadline—and that’s extremely important.  Because I am very focused when I’m working, I have quite a bit of free time, and I like that.

When I first began this job, I got assignments through acquaintances, mainly through former classmates.  With time I have built up relationships with steady clients.  It’s funny.  Calls from potential clients are quite predictable.  I get a call.  My rates are more than twice what the so-called ‘translation agencies’ charge, but I don’t think it’s too much because I provide top-notch translation.  Anyway, the caller says he’ll call me back.  I don’t hear from him again until he’s tried one of the translation agencies and found he can’t use the translation.  So now it has to be done immediately.  I may have to pull an all-nighter, but it gets done.  Sometimes the client becomes a regular.  These days a lot of people are interested in doing translation, and there are lots of ads for training schools which are just out to take advantage of people, not to train them properly.  But the clients are not fooled.  They won’t spend a lot of money on a low-quality translation—at least not more than once.

My position is quite good compared with other Korean women.  Three days a week I do oral interpretation for an American manufacturer who is connected with a Korean research and development company.  When the people at the Korean company want me to do something, they ask very politely.  For one thing, having a master’s degree gives me status, and for another, being a freelancer places me outside their control.  Besides, I work directly with the boss, and I’m paid by the American manufacturer, not by the Korean company. For me it’s easier to work with Westerners than with Koreans.  If I worked for a Korean of about the same age and rank as my boss, it would be extremely difficult.  Korean men want to assert their authority.

The boss’s secretary is very professional, and her English is quite good, but she’s very young and rather difficult to get along with.  One day one of the managers complained and called her one of the so-called new generation.  I agreed with him until he said that, since she was Korean and employed by a Korean company, she should take the Korean side and not be so loyal to the boss.

I do walk a tightrope.  On the three days I work at the company, I have lunch with the Korean employees, not with my boss.  The company cafeteria is very good, so everybody has lunch there.  I chat with people, and sometimes people ask me for advice about learning English.  Also, during the short breaks I pick up things about what’s going on in the company.  Once a week I go to the company headquarters with the boss, and we spend more than three hours in the same car, so it’s natural for us to talk about things in the company.  I think it’s my duty to tell him what’s going on.  He seems to be totally unaware because people don’t tell him anything.  That’s even true of his secretary—the one the manager thought was too close to the boss.  So I try to help him understand the Korean way of thinking.

He’s been here for one year, and he has two more to go.  He’s told me that for his first year he left home in the dark early in the morning, got home in the dark late at night and spent the whole day in the dark.  He had no communication.  The second-ranking guy reports to him, but he doesn’t mention the bad things.  He just says everything is okay.  Then finally he has to admit that there’s a problem.  So my boss is sandwiched in between the home office and the Korean company.

He said he’s been trying to find an interpreter for a long time.  The bosses in the home office said he didn’t need an interpreter because some of the guys in the company speak English and his secretary speaks English.  He put up with the lack of communication for almost a whole year until he made inquiries.  There were a lot of applicants, but no one he felt he could spend a lot of time with or trust with confidential information.  One day, he happened to meet one of my former classmates, and she recommended me.  I work for him on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.  I was supposed to attend the staff meeting with the boss and the managers.  I did attend twice, but now he prefers me not to attend because he often loses his temper, and the managers get embarrassed at being scolded in front of a woman.

So on Wednesdays I do some translation and help him with other things.  On Thursdays there is a confidential meeting with division managers and high-ranking managers.  They discuss everything. I sit beside the boss and take notes, which is faster than simultaneous translation because the meeting isn’t interrupted.  He reads the notes and participates in the meeting.  I don’t understand how he could have survived a whole year without me. 

Thursday is the day he needs me the most.  The meeting is at 8:30, so he picks me up at 6:00 in the morning.  When the headquarters moved last December, he hesitated to ask me to go with him.  I don’t know how typical it is, but he considers my situation, whereas a Korean man would probably have felt he could order me to go because he’s paying me.  Because I knew he needed me, I offered to go.  He was very pleased.  That meeting goes from 8:30 to 10:00.  He tries to take care of everything else quickly so we can leave for Seoul before the traffic gets bad.  I appreciate that.