Holding up Half the Sky in South Korea: but how Equitable is this “Asian Miracle”?

This post was written by Skoll Centre Director, viagra Pamela Hartigan, physician en route from Korea.

Last week I was in Colombia, this week I am in Korea.  Quite a cultural leap – but the underlying theme for my continental hops is the same:  the quest for more equitable, sustainable development for people and the planet.

I was invited to South Korea by Dr. Kim Sun-Uk, President of EWHA University, the world’s largest women’s university founded by an American missionary in 1886.  When it opened, it had one student. Today, EWHA has 11 colleges, 15 graduate schools and 25,000 enrolled students.  Talk about a social venture achieving scale! EWHA is now responsible for many female firsts in Korean history, including the first female prime minister, first PhD, first medical doctor, and first attorney, plus has produced half of Korea’s female ministers.

I was invited to deliver the keynote at the 125th celebration of the University’s lecture series which this year focuses on social entrepreneurship.  It is early days still in this country for this field of practice, and the Korean government, in its haste to support what seems to be a good thing in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, passed the Social Enterprise Promotion Act in 2007 that defines social entrepreneurship as the practice of providing employment and services particularly to the disabled or otherwise marginalised. When I was in Korea last June, the organizers of my visit were enormously proud of this law.

However, on this trip, I listened to several of the more widely tapped-in Koreans talk about the unfortunate result of this well-intentioned law for the evolution of social entrepreneurship in the country.  As part of the law, the government offers to subsidize the salaries of the disadvantaged a venture employs for two years.

So you can imagine, anyone who wants to set up or who already has set up a business, will run out and employ such people just to qualify as a “social enterprise”.  But when the two-year subsidy is up, the business collapses.  Pressure is being brought to bear on the government to reconsider this law, given the rate of failure of these enterprises and the distortions it produces.

In this scenario, the concept of innovation and systems change has been stripped out of the South Korean definition of social entrepreneurship completely. As such,  it was a welcome surprise to learn that EWHA’s mission is to support its graduates to be “change makers” (and that was before Ashoka).

In preparing for my keynote, I spent time reading about the country, its history and society and about EWHA.

The data doesn't look promising for South Korean women. Image from the WEF 2010 Gender Gap Report

First of all, I was quite surprised to read that despite the fact that this country’s women are well-educated and blessed with optimal maternal health services, the Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum and the United Nations both rank South Korean gender empowerment among the lowest in the world, with the WEF report in 2010 ranking South Korea in 104th place among 134 countries.

All the more perplexing is the fact that the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) reports that in 2009, South Korea had the world’s second lowest birthrate, yet only about half of adult women were participating in economic activity.  So if Korean women are having fewer babies, and they are not working, my conclusion from afar was that either they are bored to death sitting at home, or they are elderly.

To add to this puzzle, the 2009 Global Innovation Index  ranks South Korea as the most innovative country in the world, with the USA coming in second.

What is going on here, I wondered? 

If, according to the WEF report, women are not participating fully in the labor force and are excluded from career development opportunities, does this mean that almost all innovation in South Korea is spearheaded by men?  I cannot imagine that to be true.  But if it is, then currently Korea is unwittingly denying itself a great deal of its potential for sustainable development.  And EWHA has assigned itself an ambitious goal in seeking to have all its women graduates be innovators.

A conversation during this visit with Professor Hae-Joang Cho, a well-regarded anthropologist at Yonsei University, was quite sobering (and I am in incurable optimist, so that is saying something).  No, she objected.  Korean women are not sitting at home bored to death.  They are working very hard – managing the lives of their children.  She described how many Korean women, upon university graduation, go into the workforce, foregoing marriage, but by the time they are 35 years of age, with little prospects for career advancement through the male-dominated bureaucratic ladder, they find themselves wondering why they pursued the career track when they might have been more fulfilled, and certainly less lonely, with a husband and children.

Those who do marry, she said, seek their own personal fulfilment through their children.  Every waking hour is spent orchestrating their children’s lives, tutoring them after school and over vacations to ensure they excel in their studies.

Professor Cho noted that a recent study of Korean children had found that few had friends.  Their best friend was their mother because she was omnipresent in every aspect of their lives.  Thus, even those children who have the potential to be “changemakers” – which entails bucking the status quo and embarking on seemingly unreasonable pursuits – are deterred from doing so because of the unbearable thought of having betrayed the one person who sacrificed her life so that they would excel in traditional, accepted roles.

So indeed, EWHA’s work to fulfil its mission is certainly daunting.  I also wondered whether in a male dominated society, an all-women’s university had to be rethought.  If gender barriers are going to be lifted, doesn’t it make more sense to integrate men and women on equal terms in the classroom, in the hopes that as they move into the workplace, they will appreciate the strength of diversity?

When I left Seoul today for the long trek back to London, I could not help wondering where the levers for gender-focused systems change lie in South Korea.