Unlikely Counterparts: Lessons from Cambodia and South Korea on Women in the Workforce
December 13, 2017
At first glance, working women in Cambodia and Korea wouldn’t appear to have much in common: Korea is, after all, one of the world’s most educated nations, with women achieving near equal education rates as men. However, a closer look reveals some unlikely similarities between the two countries, as well as some surprising contrasts.
Recently, 13 Cambodian delegates working in the government, private, and development sectors got a first-hand look at these similarities and contrasts during a study tour to South Korea to explore challenges and solutions surrounding women’s economic participation. The one-week program, organized by The Asia Foundation in partnership with the Korean Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management (KDI School), gave participants the chance to take part in a diverse range of lectures, site visits, as well as networking opportunities with representatives ranging from central government agencies such as the Ministry of Employment and Labor and think tanks like the Korean Women’s Development Institute to women-led NGOs and private companies like the Seoul Working Mom Support Center, Womenlink, and Testworks, to name a few. Here are a few takeaways from the visit.
Despite being one of the world’s most educated nations, Korean women’s participation rate in the labor force remains one of the lowest at 58.4 percent, among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Korea also has one of the biggest wage gaps between women and men among OECD countries.
Korea experiences the so-called M-Curve phenomenon in which the country sees a sharp drop in participation in the workforce among women between mid-20s and early 40s. This is mainly because many women take time off from their professional careers during child bearing age to care for their children and family. When these “career-interrupted” women try to reenter the job market, they face hiring challenges because they are perceived to have “fallen behind” on the career ladder. Instead, many of them find employment in part-time positions or menial jobs. Some of the Korean women we met pointed out that because Korea is a strongly hierarchical society, when women return from childcare period, they often find themselves in jobs where their supervisors might be far younger than they are, and in situations where they are uncomfortable being supervised by someone younger and vice versa.
“Korea has a lot of highly educated women, and these women have very high career aspirations. But companies don’t always view them as competent enough (compared to men). And they don’t always compensate them appropriately,” said one of the managers from a social enterprise firm in Seoul with a mission to promote job opportunities among disadvantaged groups, including career-disrupted women.
On the Cambodian side, while an estimated 75 percent of women are participating in the economy—a much higher rate than Korean women—major gender gaps remain. Like Korean and many women around the world, Cambodian women also face a societal and professional structure that does not support the balance between career and family responsibilities. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB)’s Gender Analysis report, 70 percent of women employed in Cambodia are engaged in “vulnerable employment,” such as unpaid family work.
While Korean women are on average very highly skilled and educated, and are able to relearn and transfer skills easily, Cambodian women’s education obtainment rate remains low, making it difficult for them to get highly skilled work.
Despite the challenges, participants were encouraged to hear some concrete measures the Korean government is taking to promote gender equality. For instance, the central government encourages businesses to be more conducive to families through the “Family-Friendly Certificate System,” a program that certifies businesses on standard criteria such as flexible working hours and paternity leave policy. Once certified, businesses receive incentives such as tax deductions and government loans that come with lower rates. According to director Kim Seoung-cheoul from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, nearly 1,800 firms applied and were certified as family-friendly companies in from 2008 to 2016.
Local government agencies are also increasing efforts to expand women’s economic participation. Seoul City, for example, provides subsidies to the Seoul City Working Mom Support Center and the Seoul Nambu Woman Up Center, which were established to support career-disrupted women reenter the workforce. They provide not only skill training, but also consultation services to help women deal with career and family issues.
The delegations were also able to hear voices from the NGO Womenlink on issues such as women’s labor rights, and learned how NGOs advocate to resolve discrimination against women in Korea. The speaker from Womenlink also shared some of the hardships of advocating the issue publicly, especially online, given the pervasive response (mostly from men) criticizing their work. But she emphasized it is more important to concentrate guiding more people to participate in women’s rights movements rather than spending time advocating against those with differing points of view.
Delegates also visited the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI), a think-tank that focuses on conducting research and providing evidence to help support the government’s policy making. We met with Chang Eun Ha, KDWI’s director of the Center for International Development and Cooperation, who explained that the institute closely cooperates with the central government to help draft policies related to women.
The Cambodian delegates expressed that they would greatly benefit from a similar dedicated think tank on women-related topics. Rotvatey Sovann explained that Cambodia needs a more coordinated effort to support evidence-based advocacy for women. “Data is scattered around [in Cambodia], and we need the skills to find that data,” she added.
While these lessons cannot be applied to Cambodia entirely, there are positive examples that Cambodia can examine. The study visit not only created an opportunity for the Cambodian delegates to learn about best practices in Korea, it also brought the participants themselves together. And as a donor country, such exchanges can help Korea to better understand the challenges and perspectives of recipient countries like Cambodia, which can in turn inform the support that Korea provides.
Menghun Kaing and Jongbeom Choi are program officers for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia and Korea, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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