South Korea: Government Works to Increase Female Workforce Participation

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By Jiyeun Lee

Feb. 27—It's ironic that one of the few positive signs on gender trends in South Korea's workforce owes as much to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as to the nation's first female president.

The labor participation rate among South Korean women aged 20 to 24 was almost 55 percent last year, compared with about 44 percent for men. While this is one sign that women are playing a more active role in Asia's fourth-largest economy, the figures are skewed by compulsory military service, which removes young men from the workforce for almost two years as they help stand guard against the north. This trend reverses as women leave the workforce to have children, however, which is one reason Gender Equality and Family Minister Kim Hee Jung believes the nation has a lot more to do when it comes to assisting women in their late 20s and 30s.

The issue is a pressing one, as the country's workforce is forecast to start shrinking beginning in 2017.

Capable Women Excluded ‘Just Because of Their Gender'

“Gender equality for entry-level employees has been achieved to some extent,” Kim said in an interview Feb. 23 in Seoul. “The issue now is to help women stay within their jobs and encourage them to restart careers after taking childcare leave. We can't talk about having more female executives without steps to help women continue their careers.”

According to a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, one percentage point would be added to South Korea's GDP growth annually if the female participation rate equaled that of men. Half the women over 15 years old were in the labor force in 2013, compared to 49 percent in Japan and 64 percent in China, according to the International Labor Organization. While Korean women have increased their presence at the entry level, however, they are still under-represented in management.

The administration of Park Geun Hye, the nation's first female president, is seeking to increase the number of childcare facilities and improve their quality and encouraging more flexible work hours as a means to increase female participation in the workforce.

“The government is . . . trying to help women who are capable, but have been excluded from promotion just because of their gender,” Kim said.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at

For more information on South Korean HR law and regulation, see the South Korea primer.

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