The ratio of women who participate in the Korean labor force is one of the lowest among the 30 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD).
Based on last year’s statistics, the OECD and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MSF) announced on Nov. 20 that Korea’s female labor force participation rate was 54.7 percent, compared to a 61.3 percent average among OECD countries. Korea ranked 28th, with only Mexico (43.4 percent) and Turkey (26.7 percent) behind.
Women labor force participation refers to the ratio of females over age 15 who are economically active. This includes those who are without a job but actively looking for one.
According to Professor Mah Jai-shin (International Studies), the low participation of women in the labor force has a grave consequence, especially at a time the rate of population increase is falling.
"If the labor force participation ratio of women continues to go lower, there won’t be enough labor supply in the labor market, thus negatively affecting the economic growth rate,” said Mah.
Among the generally acknowledged social barriers for women - such as, marriage, household and childcare - the lack of childcare services within workplaces is the biggest problem.
“Since there are inadequate childcare centers, working women tend to quit the labor market when they have their first child, thus drawing an M-shape curve in the Korean women labor participation ratio,” said Professor Lee Joo-hee (Sociology).
An M-shape pattern reflects the distribution of female employees by age group in Korea. In developed nations, women workers temporarily leave the labor market when they are in their 30s, often for maternity leave. However, they tend to reclaim their jobs and work until retirement. In Korea, women give up their jobs in their 30s. Moreover, it is likely that they never come back.
“Added to the problem of lacking childcare centers, a Korean traditional stereotype that women are less productive than men causes unfairness within companies,” said Lee.
There are other workplace risks for women after they have had a child. “When women try to return to the labor market’ the quality of their working condition is decreased, as most of them are employed as irregular workers,” said Lee.
The MSF is implementing several programs to increase participation of women in the labor force. “Some major projects that we focus on include providing job training opportunities for people who have a hard time finding a job, especially women,” said Shim Hye-young, an administrative official of the MSF.
Still, expectations are high that more women will enter the workforce. “The women labor force participation ratio has been continually growing over the last 20 years,” said Mah. America has shown a similar growth rate since the 1950s.
"Although it is true that the door to being employed is smaller for women, it is their own personal blockades (that keep them from working) when they do not show the effort to be more professional and capable than men,” said Professor Chah Eun-young (Economics).