South Korea’s Male-Dominated Workplaces in Spotlight After Sexual Harassment Accusations

Women’s organizations and a lawyer submitted a request to the National Human Rights Commission in Seoul on July 28 to investigate the city’s dealings with workplace sexual harassment.

Photo: yonhap/Shutterstock

SEOUL—Allegations of sexual harassment and abuse that have emerged after a former mayor of Seoul was found dead last month in an apparent suicide have forced a new reckoning with the legacy of South Korea’s #MeToo movement.

During the past two years, several powerful men have been dethroned or jailed following claims of sexual harassment or abuse. Yet, women’s advocates say little has changed in a male-dominated work culture that makes it hard for women to advance—and in the worst instances, helps enable sexual harassment.

The one-time secretary of the former mayor, Park Won-soon, said she was told to endure unwanted advances and alleged sexual abuse “because [she is] pretty,” according to her lawyer. The woman, who remains anonymous, said she asked nearly 20 co-workers for help, but the pleas went nowhere.

A Seoul government official said the former secretary didn’t report her allegations through formal channels and said he couldn’t comment further on continuing investigations.

In early July, the former secretary filed a report to police about Mr. Park’s alleged sexual harassment and abuse. Mr. Park was found dead a day later, which ended any criminal investigations against him. Following his death, the former secretary’s supporters requested that South Korea’s human rights watchdog investigate the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s hiring practices and dealings with sexual harassment as an extension of its probe into allegations against Mr. Park.

The National Human Rights Commission, which launched its investigation late last month, is expected to provide recommendations to the city of Seoul by the end of this year. This month, Seoul city created a committee with external experts to separately examine how it handles sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

“This needs to lead to a broader discussion about what kind of leadership the country needs and change the way that women are experiencing their lives,” said Heather Barr, interim co-director for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, referring to the allegations against Mr. Park.

South Korea, in part motivated by the country’s low marriage and birthrates, has tried to overhaul the country’s work culture to ensure more talented females can ascend. The country’s largest companies, or those with 2 trillion South Korean won ($1.7 billion) in total assets or more, must have at least one female board director. The government keeps a tab on the ratio of female employees in large companies and operates online hotlines to report workplace sexual harassment.

But the collection of policies so far have yet to bring about significant progress toward leveling the playing field for women, said Kwon Soo-hyun, head of the Korea Women’s Political Solidarity, a Seoul-based gender policy research group.

“Without changes in the mind-set of hiring managers and business leaders, you’re going to see the same problems repeat over and over again,” Ms. Kwon said.

Female legislators, senior officials and managers make up less than 10% of the South Korean workforce, the 12th lowest out of 153 countries surveyed in 2019 by the World Economic Forum. Women, on average, make one-third less than their male peers, the largest gap out of the 37 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states.

Just one-third of South Korea’s listed companies had a female executive in the first quarter of this year, according to government data. Women accounted for 4.5% of all executives in listed South Korean companies. In the U.S., 21% of C-suite executive roles were filled by women in 2019, according to Women in the Workplace, an annual report from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org.

South Korea’s three largest companies by revenue have a low proportion of women in leadership. Women make up 5.4% of all executives at Samsung Electronics Co., 2.5% at Hyundai Motor Co. and 3.6% at SK Holdings Co.

“We are so behind. There are almost no women holding important, decision-making posts,” said Jung Choun Sook, a ruling party lawmaker who spent more than two decades working for a Seoul-based hotline center for sexual violence victims.

Kim Jina, 45 years old, graduated from a top college and started her career at a large South Korean advertising agency in 2000. She often ended long workdays at karaoke bars, where she said she was expected to pour alcoholic drinks and dance with a tambourine in hand to entertain her company’s mostly male clients.

After a decade, Ms. Kim said, she left her company after she was passed over for a promotion in favor of a male co-worker. Ms. Kim said her boss told her that she was young and her male colleague “has a kid and a family to look after.” She set up her own advertisement production company, then moved on to work as a freelancer and opened a cafe called the Woolf Social Club, an ode to the English author Virginia Woolf.

“South Korean women face a three-combo discrimination at the workplace: sexual discrimination, wage discrimination and a promotion discrimination,” Ms. Kim said. “The discrimination and depreciation women feel in the workplace is so natural, like air.”

Women at Samsung

The ratio of women decreases drastically moving up the corporate ladder.

Female employees by level

10%

Female

Male

EXECUTIVES

5.4%

MANAGERS

14.2

STAFF

51.6

10%

Female

Male

EXECUTIVES

5.4%

MANAGERS

14.2

STAFF

51.6

10%

Female

Male

EXECUTIVES

5.4%

MANAGERS

14.2

STAFF

51.6

10%

Female

Male

EXECUTIVES

5.4%

MANAGERS

14.2

STAFF

51.6

Earlier this month, South Korean lawmaker Ryu Ho-jeong, the country’s youngest-ever parliamentary member at 28, faced online criticism—and made national headlines—after wearing a red-checkered wrap-dress to the National Assembly. Much of the social-media backlash was misogynist, with some suggesting the lawmaker had come to collect money for drinks as if she were a bar escort.

“Take a look at the social controversy sparked around the dress,” said Ms. Ryu, in an interview. “It captures how society has been viewing young women.”

Following the incident, Ms. Ryu had to remind people of her responsibilities as a lawmaker. “I had to ask people to start asking me policy questions,” she said.

Write to Eun-Young Jeong at [email protected]

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