Survey finds MeToo movement has improved S. Korea’s workplace culture

Posted on : 2019-04-16 17:55 KST Modified on : 2019-04-16 17:55 KST
More than half of respondents report fewer sexual jokes and less harassment
Youth feminist groups and women’s rights activists gather in front of the Blue House on Feb. 16 to demand governmental action on addressing gender inequality and sexual harassment in schools. (Shin So-young
Youth feminist groups and women’s rights activists gather in front of the Blue House on Feb. 16 to demand governmental action on addressing gender inequality and sexual harassment in schools. (Shin So-young

A survey has found that the MeToo Movement has brought positive change to South Korea’s workplace culture. When the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) surveyed 409 top union officials between January and March of this year about how their companies had changed since MeToo began, more than half of those surveyed, or 52%, said there were fewer sexual jokes now and less behavior that belittled women. Respondents to the survey, who were allowed to choose multiple answers, also said that the management had taken an interest in preventing sexual violence (38.7%), that there was more training to prevent sexual harassment (36.7%), that male workers were more interested in the issue of sexual violence (34.2%) and that the corporate custom of going out to eat together had changed, sometimes with those dinners being held less frequently (34.2%).

Such positive changes were most noticeable among civil servants and public enterprises, with respondents reporting major improvement in programs designed to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and violence. “I think that the fundamental procedures for handling complaints and sexual harassment prevention training are much more robust and thorough than they used to be. Creating such procedures has resulted in an actual increase in the frequency with which workers have requested remedies,” said “K,” a female union executive at one public enterprise.

The creation of review boards at public enterprises with representatives from labor, management, and external groups and greater awareness about systems that provide counseling for those complaining of sexual harassment have made it possible for victims to be more proactive about addressing their issues. “Companies’ advertising and promotion of systems for processing complaints about sexual harassment have motivated employees to make use of those systems. As companies have actually put into place the relief measures requested by victims, fewer people seem to assume that there will be pushback if they raise an issue, as there used to be,” K said.

There have also been some changes in the educational, medical and financial sectors, largely as the result of labor unions stepping forward to respond to incidents of sexual harassment and violence. “The union interviews all workers, both regular workers and those on contracts, and takes action immediately on any issues that they raise,” said “N,” a female executive at the Korean Federation of Clerical and Financial Labor Unions.

Shifting attitudes have also altered the vertical hierarchy at these organizations. “Awareness has greatly increased even among ordinary employees, which has led to a general mood of cautiousness. When pretty young nurses were hired, they would be enlisted for [company dinners] and sometimes forced to do ‘love shots,’ but [nowadays] such behavior has vanished entirely,” said “D,” a female executive at a hospital trade union. A ‘love shot’ is a drinking ritual in which two individuals link their arms to take a drink.

Persistent inequality in areas of rank and pay

But at workplaces where job responsibilities are separated by gender, the survey found, little change has occurred, even after MeToo. These include companies where most workers are males but women hold a few clerical roles, such as construction and automotive firms, as well as companies where most workers are females but only men are promoted to management, such as confectionery companies.

“What these three industries have in common is that women, whether they’re doing simple support work or something more technical, have a low rank and are being paid low wages. It appears that the MeToo Movement can’t have much of an impact at workplaces where there is clear sexual discrimination,” KCTU said. In an environment with an entrenched vertical hierarchy in respect to duties, rank and pay, in other words, victims of sexual harassment and violence don’t find it easy to speak up about their experiences.

“The fact is that [women] are typically contract workers or have secretarial positions. It’s not easy for equal relationships to form between employees on the construction site,” said “R,” a male executive at a construction labor union.

At such workplaces, MeToo is sometimes exploited in a negative way, to reinforce the preexisting tendency to leave women out. “[Male workers] have a tendency to get uncomfortable when women get too close and to fear they’ll go all MeToo on them if they make even the slightest mistake,” said “M,” an executive with the Korean Metal Workers’ Union.

While 59.4% of the labor executives said that MeToo hadn’t had any negative effect, those who saw otherwise pointed out that women were more likely to be left out of company dinners (14.6%) and that male workers were more likely to avoid working with women (10.4%). This suggests that the practice of excluding women from company meals and avoiding them at work – sometimes called the Mike Pence rule – is actually being adopted by some people.

This survey was administered to 409 senior labor officials at 380 workplaces and 13 unions affiliated with the KCTU.

“This shows that the MeToo Movement has made workplace culture a little more healthier and that not only women but also managers and men on the job have recognized the importance of preventing sexual harassment,” said Shin Gyeong-a, a professor at Hallym University who analyzed the survey results.

But Shin also noted that “we can infer that the institutionalization of these effects through the improvement of organizations and processes for dealing with sexual harassment and violence is proceeding at a rather slow pace.”

What is most important for preventing sexual violence in the workplace, Shin added, is “institutional reform.” She also emphasized the need to strengthen the effectiveness of institutions for preventing and responding to sexual harassment and violence, completely reorganizing training for preventing sexual harassment, developing labor union training programs to encourage men to change their attitudes, and assessing the state of affairs at small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as at micro-enterprises.

By Park Da-hae, staff reporter

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