Activist countries

South Korea continues to lag behind other countries on many gender equality indicators

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South Korea’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol won a tight race last month after a campaign in which he repeatedly capitalized on a growing backlash against feminism among predominantly young and male voters .

Yoon called systemic gender inequality a “thing of the past” and said he would prioritize talent and ability over gender balance in his presidential nominations. The new president has pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and remove his predecessor’s gender quota, which aimed to ensure that women occupy at least 30% of ministerial posts.

Contrary to Yoon’s claim, our new research documents the significant gender discrimination that exists in presidential cabinets in East and Southeast Asia, including South Korea. This discrimination not only limits the number of women appointed to cabinets, but also the substantive experience of women reaching the highest ministerial positions. In particular, we find that while men from diverse professional backgrounds can often rise to more prestigious leadership positions, women are much more likely to require proven experience as an established politician to achieve similar positions.

How are women treated in presidential cabinets?

Previous studies have long demonstrated that women are less likely to be appointed to cabinets and tend to be assigned to less prestigious ministerial portfolios than men. These models are also found in South Korea. However, the main contribution of our study is to analyze whether women also face discrimination in their political career after their initial appointment to cabinet.

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To investigate discrimination, we collected new data on the careers of 1,374 ministers who have served in Asia’s major presidential democracies since their respective democratizations, including the 515 ministers who have served in South Korea since the democratization of 1988. We then tested for gender trends in ministerial promotions – when a president approves the transfer of a minister from an initial appointment to a higher executive position, a position with access to greater power and financial resources.

Overall, male and female ministers experience surprisingly similar promotion rates, according to our research. At first glance, this might seem to indicate that most gender discrimination occurs at the nomination stage – and that there is greater gender parity afterwards, which would be in line with Yoon’s comments as well as trends documented in many Western democracies.

However, while overall promotion rates may be similar by gender, the impact of political experience on the likelihood that men and women will receive a promotion is quite different. For female ministers, having a political background – as a legislator or member of the top executive, for example – increases the chances of promotion by 17 percentage points more than for male ministers. Political experience therefore counts much more for the upward mobility of women in cabinet than that of men.

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In practice, these results mean that promotions remain biased. Presidents in Asia, including South Korea, often promote male ministers who have built their careers in government, politics, business and academia – but these same presidents also tend to give promotions to a select group of female ministers. This select group, we found, had substantial political resources having previously held high-level positions in the national legislature or the executive branch of government.

What can we expect from the Yoon administration?

Our research suggests that the proposed removal of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family would destroy an institution that has helped many women, including those without political training, to initiate and build their ministerial careers. This ministry was the most common assignment for female South Korean ministers.

This ministry was established in 2001 when Han Myeong-sook, a social activist for the democratization of South Korea during the authoritarian period and a founding member of President Kim Dae-jung’s ruling Millennium Democratic Party, took office as the first minister. Han built a long political career after this initial appointment and became South Korea’s first female prime minister.

And Yoon’s decision to drop a gender quota for her cabinet suggests there will be fewer opportunities for women, especially those without political experience, to hold leadership positions in the new administration. Of the 18 ministers Yoon has announced so far, only three are women, two of whom served in previous administrations. In addition to losing the talent of potential female cabinet members from a wider diversity of backgrounds, the shortage of female ministers is likely to have consequences for women’s broader participation in South Korean politics. And fewer female ministers in Yoon’s cabinet may make it less likely that South Korea’s new government will focus on implementing policies favored by women.

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These consequences are particularly concerning given that South Korea – despite Yoon’s claims to the contrary – continues to lag behind other countries on many gender equality indicators. For example, South Korea has the largest gender pay gap, the lowest proportion of women on boards of publicly traded companies, and the fifth-lowest percentage of female legislators among the 38 member countries. ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Women seem destined to be underrepresented in Yoon’s cabinet, a trend that continues to prevail in Asian presidential democracies. But it is possible that South Korean cabinets will become more balanced over time as more women rise to ministerial positions. However, this will only be possible when presidents place a higher value on pursuing gender balance at the cabinet level and empower bridging ministries, such as a ministry of women’s affairs, which can build the capacity to more women to initiate and build their ministerial careers.

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Don S. Lee is an assistant professor at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea.

Charles T. McClean (@cmcclean) is the Toyota Visiting Professor at the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan.