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Opinion

South Korea shows workplace gender discrimination is alive and kicking

Seoul Metro cheated women out of jobs -- and it is not alone

| South Korea

The best qualification for a job in South Korea, it seems, is to be a man.

On September 30, Korea's Board of Audit and Inspection, or BAI, disclosed that Seoul Metro, which runs the capital's subway, had adjusted downward the interview scores of female applicants in a 2016 recruitment round for train inspectors and operators.

Seoul Metro revised their scores to below 50 points, eliminating all six women who had initially passed. After this, the successful candidates were all men. Seoul Metro told the BAI that "it was a job that women couldn't take on."

The BAI, however, declared that Seoul Metro as a public corporation should take the lead in diminishing any discriminatory environment and creating equal opportunities for jobs. It ruled that depriving female job seekers of employment on the grounds of gender violated national regulations. Two officials at Seoul Metro admitted their wrongdoing and were suspended.

There has been a growing complaint recently among young Korean men that it is they, not women, who face gender discrimination, but the Seoul Metro incident and several others belie this. The government and society as a whole need to stand up to this brutal behavior.

Seoul Metro's recruitment discrimination reflects the sexist reality of corporate life in Korea today, with frequent manipulation of women's interview scores. In 2018, the head of the Korea Gas Safety Corp. received a jail sentence for, among other things, violating equal opportunities laws by altering scores.

The president of the Korea Coal Corp. was indicted in 2014 on a charge of eliminating most women applicants during the screening of interns. Similar discrimination occurred at large banks and the Korea International Exhibition Center.

There are many other cases across Asia, where academic research shows that gender discrimination prevails.

Tokyo Medical University negatively manipulated the scores of female applicants for more than a decade from 2006, claiming it did so because female doctors often changed jobs due to marriage or childbirth. But this is using one prejudice to justify another.

The glass ceiling which keeps women from the top of corporate life is indisputable. Only 3.6% of executives at the top 500 companies by sales in Korea in 2018 were women.

Some argue this is the result of "ability," unrelated to gender, but this is circular: Seoul Metro may well have said women could do not that job precisely because they had never let a woman do it. Not only can women not get through the glass ceiling, they cannot even see it if they are not given an entry-level job.

In South Korea, the public recruitment of office workers at large companies has long favored male applicants. Enforcing the Equal Employment Act of 1989 could have reduced blatant gender discrimination, but it did not happen, and in 1994 feminist groups filed a complaint against recruitment regulations governing women's appearance -- they had to be taller than 160 centimeters and weigh less than 50 kilograms -- in violation of the AEE.

In 1998, during the Korean financial crisis, many companies kicked women out of their jobs first. The person most likely to lose their job was "a female office worker in her 20s working for a company with more than 300 employees," academic research found. Korean women's educational and academic achievements since the 2000s are almost the same as men's, but in the labor market, they still face a "last-in, first-out" situation.

Korean women are taking action. For this year's employment equality week in May, the Korean Women Workers Association launched a campaign for women to take selfies with a picket sign that said "Don't ask me about marriage, boyfriends and birth plans during the job interview" and post them on social media.

Fortunately, the voices of women expecting gender equality are louder than ever, as feminism has been gaining in popularity since 2015.

What the Korean government needs to do is thoroughly investigate officials and sternly punish those responsible to prevent such incidents from happening again. The perception should become widespread that sexual differences are not natural, but are a fraud maintained through criminal activities such as score-rigging.

To address this gender discrimination in employment, members of society need to break away from gender bias. The perception that men are naturally fit for public places and women for private areas makes women seem only suitable to assist men in the labor market, and it supports gender discrimination. To overcome this, a greater understanding of feminism must spread throughout society.

Without severe reflection and determination to improve gender discrimination in all countries, this illegal recruitment practice will continue in the future. We all should tackle the frustration of female job seekers and establish gender equality as a universal value.

Joohee Kim is a Research Associate Professor in the Critical Global Studies Institute at Sogang University, Korea.

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