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NOVEMBER 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Family and Career
Korean women want both — and are beginning to get them

BEING 25 IN ASIA:
JAPAN: A Brave New World
Young webheads are battling Japan Inc. and ingrained attitudes to forge a new economy
MALAYSIA: Mod and Muslim
And fretting about Islamic conservatism

SINGAPORE: Pushing Back the Boundaries
But can artists ever break free to be truly creative?


Oonly five years ago, it was rare to find a woman in a South Korean office who wasn't making tea or idly thumbing through a bridal magazine. Though they may have graduated from elite women's colleges, most female employees put marriage and family far ahead of careers. They typically quit their jobs before their weddings. In a conservative and patriarchal society, women, it was said, lived their lives in the shadow of three men — father, husband and son.

All that is changing. Go into a bank, restaurant, or department store these days and you will see pregnant women coming to work. This is true even in such large, tradition-bound conglomerates as Hyundai and Samsung. You might even find women in their early 30s with titles like manager or marketing director. What's new is the belief that the workplace is no longer a mere way station on the journey to children and a home. Korean women who joined companies in recent years are the first generation to move up the corporate ladder.

Take Michelle Han, 34. As a student at Seoul's Kyung Hee University, she never thought that she would become a senior executive. Parents discouraged their daughters from nurturing such ambitions, and employers considered young women to be temporary help at best. But Han, who is married with a daughter, now heads an international investor relations team at Korea Asset Management Corp. She thinks that women could close the gap with men in company hierarchies "maybe in 10 years."

Of course, ambitious Korean women still face many obstacles. Traditional attitudes, while softening, are still prevalent. "When I told my mother I was going on a business trip with my male boss, she told me to quit right away," says 27-year-old Kim Hana, who works for a foreign marketing firm in Seoul. And employers still balk at investing time and resources in training women. The statistics bear them out. Today, some 70% to 80% of women who enter the workforce quit early.

For women, career advancement often means personal sacrifices. Cho Moran, 32, a manager at Korean Air, recently decided to do something almost unheard of in Korea. To set a precedent for women employees, she is leaving her husband and son behind in Seoul to take a posting in Tokyo. "It may be tough for me personally, but I have to accept this transfer for the sake of my female colleagues," she says.

Korea's corporate culture can be off-putting to young women. "In many places, it is still designed by men and for men," complains Choi Hyun Soo, 28. She recently quit as an assistant manager at a trading company because she could no longer stomach the attitude of her male colleagues. "Everything in the company is male-oriented, including the habit of after-hours drinking," she says. "The men considered me an outcast because I refused to go along with them."

Even so, there is growing acceptance of women with independent minds. New laws and the efforts of labor unions are also having an effect. Samsung has set up a day-care center for married women with children. "Younger women want to have both career and family," says Cho Sung In, 27, assistant manager for global media relations at Samsung Electronics. "Some companies have begun to realize that."

The new economy will open up more opportunities for women. Many founders or executives of new information technology concerns, though still almost invariably men, are at least younger than the typical Korean executive and have more accommodating attitudes. They understand the value of women and need them to help fill rapidly expanding positions. Their main concern is that their employees, regardless of sex, have the necessary skills to do the job. In another five years, these women pioneers could become pacesetters in Korea's rapidly changing corporate landscape.

By TODD CROWELL and LAXMI NAKARMI Seoul

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