[Column] S. Korea’s glass ceiling becomes a bit lower

Posted on : 2020-01-26 11:09 KST Modified on : 2020-01-26 11:09 KST
Amendment requires chaebol director boards to have at least 1 woman
Glass ceiling
Glass ceiling

“This is a miracle! People kept saying this was never going to work,” said a member of Women Corporate Directors (WCD), a group that had been working day and night in support of an amendment to the Financial Investment Services and Capital Market Act.

On Jan. 9, South Korea’s National Assembly passed an amendment to the law that prevents every member of the board of directors from being the same gender at listed companies with at least 2 trillion won (US$1.71 billion) in assets. According to Article 160.20, which was added in this amendment to the law, at least one woman will have to join the boards of directors at South Korea’s conglomerates, which have typically consisted of seven or eight men.

As the first example of a mandatory gender quota in the private sector, the word “miracle” is no exaggeration. Although I’ve written several pieces about the female quota, I often found myself wondering privately whether this could actually happen in Korea. Not only the patriarchal nature of Korean culture but also the misogyny that has grown worse in recent years and the narrative about angry Korean males in their 20s seemed like insurmountable obstacles. What could have made such a miracle possible?

It all began on January 2018 with a discussion by Women Corporate Directors, a group of female registered directors, that ran late into the night. The greatest desire of women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who had spent their careers at male-dominated workplaces, with no women above them in management, was to give different options to the younger women following in their footsteps. The main projects they adopted to pursue their mission of giving women a greater presence in upper management were instituting a quota system for female directors and launching a “women’s fund.”

Someone was listening to these women: Choi Woon-youl, the Democratic Party lawmaker who had spearheaded the adoption of the outside director system while leading the advisory board of the Corporate Ownership Structure Improvement Committee in 1998. In August of that year, a bill was submitted to the National Assembly that would have required that at least one-third of board directors be women.

What followed was a rollercoaster. The National Policy Committee lowered the “one-thirds” requirement to “at least one,” on the grounds of “practicality,” and replaced mandatory disclosure with voluntary disclosure, because of the “corporate burden.” Despite our vigorous lobbying and pleading, the Legislation and Judiciary Committee weakened the “rule” to a “recommendation” because of the stubborn opposition of a Liberty Korea Party (LKP) lawmaker who claimed that the bill represented “corporate arm-twisting and reverse discrimination against men.”

A surprise twist came shortly before the bill was sent to the floor. Min Byeong-du, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party, argued that those changes would render the entire revision pointless and suggested that the quota be made mandatory again, following a two-year grace period.

Companies don’t change unless they’re compelled to

Choi Woon-youl made the following observations while calling for a vote on the revised law: “There are some sectors where the female cohort is increasing naturally, but companies don’t change unless they’re compelled to, even if that compulsion is only temporary. When outside directors were implemented, opponents protested strongly to what they called ‘legislative overreach.’ Securing diverse [voices on the board] who can ask chaebol owners to reconsider rash decisions is the way to preserve corporate competitiveness.”

Currently, the percentage of registered female directors at some 210 South Korean companies with more than 2 trillion won in assets is 3% (compared to an average of 20.6% at 3,000 companies in 40 countries around the world).

“Accusations of ‘socialism’ have been raised in some quarters in regard to the stewardship code, but this is a time when the Canadian and Japanese pension funds are voting against companies that lack female directors and promising to increase investment in companies where more women take part in management. This is also significant because companies are hiring a lot of young women who are in dire need of role models,” said Lee Eun-hyeong, a professor of business management at Kookmin University.

Women in public education

On the same day, the National Assembly passed a revised version of the Public Educational Officials Act that requires public and national universities to strive to avoid allowing any one gender from making up more than three-quarters of their teaching staff. This bill, which was the brainchild of the Diversity Committee at Seoul National University (SNU) and the Federation of Female Professor Associations and National and Public Universities in 2017, also followed a tortuous path. The original draft of the bill would have mandated a ratio be instituted for gender, as it already is for department graduates, but that was watered down to a recommendation about yearly target figures. And when two LKP lawmakers complained about “legislative overreach” and “an infringement of the right to equality,” the bill was punted to the second subcommittee of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee.

“It’s true that the number of women being hired has gone up recently. But our simulations show that it will take 20 years for the percentage of female teaching staff to rise to 25%,” said Oh Se-jung, the president of Seoul National University co-sponsor of the bill during his tenure as a People’s Party lawmaker. Women account for 16.6% of teaching staff at public and national universities, a long way behind private universities (28.3%).

Numerous studies indicate that a “hidden bias” operates in processes that would seem to be fair. The percentage of female teaching staff had stubbornly remained low at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but when rejected female applications for teaching positions were resubmitted with male names, their scores went up.

“Affirmative action isn’t a privilege; it’s an unavoidable temporary measure, given the reality that such prejudice exists. I hope this measure disappears after five or six years,” said Roe Jung-hye, president of the National Research Foundation of Korea and former chair of the SNU Diversity Committee.

Some might say this act is designed to solely benefit elite females. At the risk of being misunderstood, I believe we need a lot more successful women. The main character in the book “Kim Ji-young: Born 1982” is encouraged by the sight of her team leader, an older woman at her company. In reality, this wasn’t a miracle. Just as sympathetic male lawmakers took action when motivated women stepped forward, society is clearly changing, though the walls may still look high. The “glass ceiling” bill has brought me hope.

By Kim Young-hee, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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