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.

Bae Eun-jeong, also known as Bae Lina, is a YouTube star who used to give makeup tutorials. She used to spend two hours putting on makeup before going out.
South Koreans confront rigid beauty standards
02:40 - Source: CNN

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.