Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

06 April, 2011

Korean Women, Culture and Discrimination

By Aaron
06 April, 2011

In his latest column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Don Boudreaux takes up the challenge of evaluating culture as an economic determinant. Many economists - indeed, many good economists - shy away from culture as an explanatory variable, seeing it as the last, nebulous resort of shoddy scholarship. As Boudreaux writes, however, nebulous does not equal unimportant:

Now, "culture" itself can be a vague and gauzy term. It is difficult to quantify, measure and observe. Even defining it is a challenge. So economists resist including culture in their explanations of how economies work. This resistance is understandable, for it's tempting for lazy scholars to use culture as a generic explanation for any economic fact that isn't easily understood by using the tools of basic economics.

Nevertheless, the fact that a phenomenon is impossible to quantify does not mean that that phenomenon doesn't significantly influence human affairs. If culture does play a role in human society, we economists must include it in our theories.

Only a few hours after reading Boudreaux's piece, I came across this small item in the Korea Times, which reports - and I know this'll shock your pants off - that sexual discrimination is rampant in Korean offices.

In the case of women, the largest portion, or 35 percent, felt discriminated against for being tasked to do trifling jobs, such as making coffee.

Other degrading duties included pouring drinks at office gatherings (25 percent), being subjected to remarks on appearance (24 percent), followed by discrimination on salaries and restricted vacation days.

I nodded knowingly, agreeing that discrimination is a real problem in Korean offices. But then I remembered writing, just last week (in reference to Walmart discrimination Supreme Court case), that discrimination is a charge often levied but rarely substantiated. And I still believe this to be generally true. After all, in order to truly prove discrimination we would have to be mind-readers, capable of knowing why a person hired a man rather than a woman, an Asian over a white person, or a young man before an older man.

Having worked in Korea for the better part of a decade, however, I must admit that while the lot of women in Korea has improved greatly in recent generations, a large portion of the local female talent is wasted. The intelligence, creativity, and motivation of Korean women too often simply rot on the vine.

As I wrote last week, discrimination tends to occur less when the cost of engaging in it is higher. Thus, if Korean employers are indeed discriminating against their female employees, we must conclude that either A) they suffer no cost as a result of their actions, or B) the cost of not "discriminating" is higher. Or, as I suspect, the answer involves a bit of both.

First, the latter: Korean culture - especially business culture - is traditionally patriarchal, and it isn't easy to be the boss who bucks this trend and brings a female into the clubby male world of corporate Korea. Whether you're a chauvinistic jackass or not, if your customers are men who like playing golf and drinking to excess at the local hostess bars, you might think twice about putting a female on that sales account. That is, the cost of being egalitarian and not discriminating against your female sales reps will likely put your company at a disadvantage.

We must also ask, however, if Korean firms face the necessary incentives to put their female workers to the most productive use? As Korea rose from the rubble of colonialism and the Korean War, the government largely protected the domestic market. Korean firms were thus shielded from the true winds of competition and, as a result, had less incentive to exploit every last ounce of available talent. As the Korean market continues to open, however, and as Korean firms compete more in overseas markets, I suspect that women will find an ever-more welcoming environment for their talents. One test of this theory would be to compare the working conditions and job descriptions of women at Korean firms (particularly small, local companies) with those at large, foreign firms.

Finally, Korean culture continues to shape the expectations of women and the companies who employ them. Traditionally, Korean women quit their jobs when they marry or, at the latest, when they give birth to their first child. For Korean companies, then, it thus makes little sense to devote scarce resources to training workers who are virtually guaranteed to leave within five years. Far better to invest in those (male) workers who are likely to be with you for the long haul.

These considerations - who Korean businessmen prefer to deal with, an underestimation of female talent, and the role of mothers - all fall under the "culture" category about which Boudreaux wrote. We may not be able to quantify traditions, sentiments and prejudice, but we'd be foolish to deny their influence.

So does discrimination exist in Korea? Sure it does, although it's not quite as simple as it seems at first glance. Whose fault is it? Well, everyone's and no one's. And while it's nice to think that we could waive our magic governmental wand and simply make such inequality disappear, no legislation will erase thousands of years of evolved norms and traditions. As Boudreaux writes, culture may not explain everything, but it does matter - a lot.