"Name me a president,"someone asks. "John F. Kennedy," one answers. "Nelson Mandela,"another replies. Not too many will, however, refer to female presidents when answering the question because there has only been a minute percentage of women leaders in the past. The low participation of women in politics, however, is now going through a paradigm shift as more female leaders come into spotlight. Recently, Africa's first elected woman president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and her tough policies to eradicate corrupt financial management within the nation is receiving hot media coverage. Also, Chile's new female president Michelle Bachelet is frequently quoted for stating that she will create a nation for "all women and men" in her inauguration speech. The emergence of such women presidents in various parts of the world indicate that the once male-dominated realm of politics is changing and women are finally having their voices heard in political affairs, both domestically and globally.
The Ewha Voice asked three female students from Ewha, Jang Baek-sun (International Studies, 3), Park Sang-young (International Studies, 3), Song Hye-won (English Lang. & Lit., 2), and three male students from other universities, Lim Jeong-uk (Catholic Medical School, 3), Kwon Young-june (Ajou Univ., 3), Park Chan-woo (Korea Univ., 3) to participate in a panel discussion on women leadership and women presidents in the world and in Korea. Their insights, as students, may offer some clues about how this trend of women's leadership will develop in the future.
E.V.: What do you think is symbolized by the increasing number of women presidents in the world today and what does this mean to Korea?
Song: First of all, I think more women presidents in the international community suggest, that in this highly interwined global society, nations are influencing each other to cast off male-centric political system, and trigger more women participation in a once forbidden arena of politics.
Kwon: Certainly, women's roles in politics have increased in South Korea as well. However, compared to other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, South Korea is still lagging in female participation in politics. We need more women politicians in ministries other than Ministry of Gender Equality and Family who can advocate and support women's welfare and general well-being in society.
Jang: I still believe that South Korea has a long way to go in order to reach a state where women can receive equal treatment to men in managing political matters.
E.V.: Why do you think it has been difficult for women to partake in politics in South Korea?
Park C.: Because South Korea went through rapid industrialization and economic growth, the general public did not have as much time as other developed countries to enhance the citizens' recognition about equal power between the genders. That is why most Koreans in their forties and fifties are still embedded in backward feudalistic thinking that males should be the ones in charge of a nation's governance.
Kwon: I think South Korea's culture has much to do with blocking more women from participating in politics. For example, our deeply rooted Confucian beliefs sway people to think that women should be more like the obedient mother, modeled by Shinsa-im-dang, than like Margaret Thatcher, the indomitable leader-type
Park S.: It is said that in order to be a politician in South Korea one must have regional ties with other politicians. Also, one must have graduated from the same universities as others to be successful in the political field. Obviously, such networking is more difficult for women in this somewhat male-dominated society, making politics men's playground for so long.
E.V.: How can we induce more women to participate in politics in South Korea?
Lim: The status quo will not change unless the public's attitude toward gender equality undergoes a shift. Still, a number of women want to rely on their husbands economically, which shows that women want to be subservient to men. Also, eighty percent of criticism regarding female politicians comes from the fact that most women have not paid military service and thus are not knowledgeable about such issue. Women should have solutions to such criticisms.
Park C.: Preserving our old culture is vital yet sometimes it is important to adopt and learn new values. China is well known for granting gender equality and this should be learned.
E.V.: Do you think women's leadership reflects how developed a nation is?
Park S.: At first glance, one may think a more developed democratic state gives more opportunities for women to participate in politics. However, this is not true. Look at the case of the U.S. They, like South Korea, never had a women president in their history. Actually, most women presidents are from developing countries such as the Philippines and Nicaragua. However, I have doubts as to whether these presidents from developing countries are self-made. Most of them either married politicians or were daughters of independence movement leaders.
Kwon: I think developed countries definitely give more opportunities for women to participate in politics. For example, the Swedish regulations state that at least forty percent of congressional representatives be women.
E.V.: Should South Korea have a quota system in its political system?
Jang: Though some may argue that this will bring reverse discrimination against male politicians, a quota system is crucial.
Park C.: Yes, I agree with a quota system. Nonetheless, whether the woman politicians selected under the quota are truly capable or not to govern a state should be verified beforehand.
E.V.: When do you think the first South Korean woman president will be elected?
Song: The first woman president will be elected when citizens can perceive a woman president as an individual with her own characteristics and leadership skills, not simply as a woman.
Lim: When the younger generation becomes the older generation, people will no longer think that women are inferior to men in pursuing leadership. That, of course, will take at least ten more years. I think women's leadership will be able to solve the nation's problems of low birth rates and infant care systems more sufficiently.