A woman looks at notices during a jobs fair in Seoul. Women often struggle to find a foothold in South Korea's male-dominated corporate culture and a series of firms have been caught using sexist recruitment targets to keep it that way.
Seoul CNN  — 

The interviewer looked at the 23-year-old woman sitting in front of him. He wasn’t impressed – but his reaction had nothing to do with her resumé.

“Women aren’t fit to work in sales,” he told her. “You’re a woman, why would you pursue a job in this industry?”

The woman – who requested anonymity because she fears career repercussions – was shocked, but not that surprised. She told CNN that during a group interview with a different South Korean company, she was asked about her plans for marriage and children, while two male applicants were only asked questions about the job.

“I felt humiliated (and) betrayed, like I got cut by shards of the glass ceiling,” she said.

College student Kim So-jung knows this feeling well. She said that during an interview for a part-time clerical job, the manager doing the hiring told her “girls look much better without their glasses on,” asked if she was dating anyone, and said she should wear more makeup in order to look “professional.”

When she asked what that had to do with the job, he complained that she was too “outspoken.” Kim ended up walking out on the interview.

As South Korea begins to push back against its entrenched patriarchal culture, more and more women are speaking out about discrimination they say they have faced in hiring and their careers – even as the legal system struggles to catch up and hold companies to account.

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Widespread discrimination

South Korea has one of the thickest glass ceilings in the world.

In 2018, the country ranked 30 out of 36 OECD nations for women’s employment, even though it has the highest tertiary education rate of the group for women aged 25 to 34. In the World Economic Forum’s most recent report on the global gender gap, South Korea ranked 115 out of 149 countries, with major disparities in terms of wage equality and earned income for women.

Politics is particularly unequal. Women hold just 17% of seats in South Korea’s parliament, according to the World Bank.

During his New Year’s press conference, President Moon Jae-in described the gender gap as a “shameful reality” and pledged to address it.

Park Kwi-cheon, a labor law professor at Ewha Law School in Seoul, said that “because South Korean women have a very low employment rate despite having high education levels, one can see that the hiring discrimination is still continuing in many ways.”

She pointed to a number of recent legal cases against South Korean companies as evidence the issue was “prevalent in our society.”

Those legal cases have exposed shocking levels of discrimination within some of the country’s biggest businesses.

Three of the largest South Korean banks – KB Kookmin Bank, KEB Hana Bank and Shinhan Bank – were found to have eliminated female applicants and manipulated the passing scores for applicants to exclude female job candidates and favor men. At Shinhan, the ratio of successful male to female candidates in 2016 was 3 to 1, prosecutors said.

All three banks declined to comment on the cases when asked by CNN.

In another case which reached the country’s Supreme Court, the CEO of the Korea Gas Safety Corporation (KGS), Park Ki-dong, was found to have actively instructed managers to manipulate the scores of 31 applicants, while eight women with passing scores were disqualified and replaced with lower scoring men in 2015 and 2016.

“Park held a view that in the case of women, their competencies in the field work are significantly lower than those of men, and that they’re not suitable to be put into various types of work,” the Supreme Court said.

A representative for KGS said the company reached out to all eight women who were unfairly eliminated and hired three of them who expressed a continuing desire to join the company. KGS also said it had dismissed all managers involved in discriminatory hiring.

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‘Shameful reality’

South Korean culture remains deeply patriarchal, with women and men expected to fulfill certain roles based on gender.

This is especially the case with child rearing. Park, the KGS executive, justified excluding women on the grounds they “may interrupt business continuity due to maternity leave,” the Supreme Court said in its ruling.

In a 2017 survey by recruitment firm Incruit, more than one in four women said they were asked about their plans for marriage or children during interviews. Under Korean law, if a female employee is dismissed for getting married, pregnant or having a child, those responsible can face up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $26,500.

“Our society is dominated by stereotypes about gender roles. Men are the breadwinners, and women are responsible for child-rearing and housework,” said Choi Mi-jin, president of the Women Labor Law Support Center. “This is why gender discrimination in hiring is widely accepted and continues to be practiced.”

Even when companies have been found guilty of discrimination, the punishments they face often do not go beyond a slap on the wrist.

When KB Kookmin Bank was found guilty of eliminating 112 female applicants, the court fined it just $4,500, according to Seoul Southern District Court.

Park, the law professor, said the meager punishments encouraged companies to think, “I would rather pay (a small fine) and do whatever I want.”

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More hurdles

Women who have been discriminated against also face difficulties in making a case.

While two government bureaus are tasked with investigating discrimination – the National Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Employment and Labor – only the latter can bring enforcement actions.

Even when a complaint is filed, Park said it can often be hard to prove gender discrimination outright.

“Most of the documents related to human resources are not disclosed, so there is a limit to how much evidential data one can obtain,” she said.

“There are many cases where (lawsuits) are dismissed, companies are acquitted or receive very light punishment because of a lack of evidence.”

Many women have traditionally avoided even bringing cases to light in the first place, fearing retribution or difficulty finding a job in the future if they go public with complaints.

The 23-year-old woman who requested anonymity told CNN she didn’t file a complaint because she heard women who had spoken out “were demoted or were assigned to unfavorable positions.”

“Even if I complain, it wouldn’t work,” she said. “Rather, I would become the weird one.”

Park said that while the law prohibited punishing those who spoke out, “there are many cases where people are branded problematic employees, excluded from important duties or bullied inside the company.”

The Ministry of Employment and Labor said in a statement it has been “strengthening and expanding our effort” when it comes to cracking down on hiring discrimination.

“However, because of (the short time period) the effect isn’t immediately visible,” the Ministry added.

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Slow progress

Yet despite the myriad hurdles they face, more and more women are speaking out – and forcing the government to take action. This is part of a wider reckoning with South Korea’s patriarchal society that has also seen a number of prominent #MeToo cases and women organizing to fight against illegal spycam photography and male-defined beauty standards.

Since last summer, state-run enterprises have been forced to record the gender ratio of job applicants, while banks must publicly disclose hiring figures to ensure they are not discriminatory.

According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, new guidelines on “gender equality in recruitment” are being finalized and will be distributed to private enterprises before the second half of this year.

A bill proposed last year to increase the punishment for companies found guilty of discrimination in hiring is at the committee stage. If passed, it would increase the standard fine to $27,000 and allow judges to impose a prison sentence of up to five years.

While policy changes are important, Park said a change in societal perceptions was ultimately key to solving the issue.

“Of course there are parts in the law that need to be changed,” Park said. “However, I think it’s more important for all members of the society to form a consensus and change social perception.”

The 23-year-old told CNN she was less optimistic about South Korea’s ability to change.

“I think this is a country where social perception does not change easily. There are hurdles, but there is always one that cannot be jumped over – you cannot change what is in people’s subconscious,” she said.

Kim, the student, agreed. She said that while attitudes might change as younger generations rose to positions to hire staff, she often felt hopeless about the situation.

“I often think about doing my masters abroad or getting a job abroad, then I would be liberated from all this,” Kim said. “But then I wouldn’t be taking responsibility … I’d just be avoiding the issue and not going in there attempting to make things better.”

CNN’s Hyeri Kim, Gyubin Hong, Sungjoo Kim and Kayoung Kim contributed reporting.