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Korean classroom gender issues

Gender Empowerment in the Classrooms of South Korea

While male and female students in South Korea spend years as rivals and equals in the classroom, the access to resources and opportunities in the workplace decreases sharply for women later on in life.

Last Month in Seoul, as Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win a Fields Medal in Mathematics, Yi So-yeon, the first Korean astronaut and the 49th woman to visit space, quit her job. Citing personal reasons in her resignation letter, Yi effectively ended the Korean space program, which has no other trained astronauts.

It is not surprising that the Republic of Korea, which is ranked 5th in the world for Reading and Science education, and 3rd in the world for the high number of average years women spend in school, has a woman as its first astronaut. But for many, it is probably not surprising that she recently stepped down.

Despite having a woman president, the Republic of Korea is ranked 111th for gender equality in areas that include access to health, education, political empowerment and economic participation. which is three spots down from its rank of 108th in 2012. In a January 2014 article in Bloomberg, Eunkyung Seo and Sam Kim noted that Korea has a 39% wage gap —the largest in the OECD. Perhaps more significant is that while 62.9% of women in their twenties participate in the workforce, the number drops significantly when women fulfill traditional roles as housewives in their thirties.

This kind of teaching goes beyond handing girls blue pencils and boys pink ones, swapping one gender norm for another. Teachers must ask students to consider their goals and help them develop strategies to reach them.

Seo and Kim further note that Korea’s work culture of long days and company dinners with late-night drinking make it difficult for working mothers to achieve success.  Others point to the recent attempts to revive the military incentive system, which, in the past, awarded points on employment tests for conscripted military service. Some opponents of the incentives argue that there should be similar benefits for women, one that gives points for childbirth. But what neither side realizes is that both suggested policies fail to recognize the potential for men and women to craft unique individual identities as caregivers, defenders of the nation, and full participants in their society.

While male and female students spend years as rivals and equals in the classroom and on standardized tests, the access to resources and opportunities decreases sharply for women later in life. Women hold only 17% of managerial positions at public and private companies.  This decrease is not solely the result of institutional limitations; President Park Geun Hye has appointed a new Minister for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and has been vocal in her support of working women and mothers.  She pledged to create 1.65 million jobs for women by 2018, increasing the participation of women in the workforce by 10%.

raising hand korea

It is also, perhaps, telling that initiatives to promote gender equality are integrated in a Ministry that is devoted to the family. Rather than challenge existing, limiting norms by promoting a variety of roles for women and men, gender initiatives seem focused on finding various ways for women to fulfill existing roles and expectations as traditional wives and mothers, a dangerous push that seems directed at the idea of “having it all”, which could lead to little change in expectations for, or treatment of, either gender and cause overworked women to take on even more stress.

The OECD noted that while women’s participation in public life has increased over the last 50 years, the amount of men sharing household chores and child rearing has not kept pace. The average woman in South Korea spends just under four hours a day on unpaid work, including household chores, shopping and child care; the average man spends just 45 minutes a day engaged in the same activities.

The reasons vary but among them is the view that women are more naturally suited towards the tasks of the home, including raising children. It is this belief that leads many women to give up promising careers, and it is this belief that must be challenged in the classroom, where students are not yet weighed down with the responsibilities of later life, and where students of both genders can share values and explore alternatives.

The reality is, while girls may take the initiative in the classroom, they’re not being encouraged to challenge traditional roles that limit their achievement in Korean society. Even without definitive negative reinforcement, gender norms in a society with a rigid social hierarchy are enough to stop many from arguing against oppressive assumptions and lack of promotion. Challenging unquestioned ideas, including that women must be a child’s primary caregiver, and using daily curricula as impetus for larger discussion helps male and female students of all ages to confront gaps in opportunity and think of new ways to eliminate them.

President Park Geun Hye has appointed a new Minister for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and has been vocal in her support of working women and mothers. She pledged to create 1.65 million jobs for women by 2018, increasing the participation of women in the workforce by 10%.

Lasting, effective change can only happen when students not only have access to resources and multiple perspectives, but also generate their own solutions to problems of equity. Empowering women to make choices that improve their participation in society need not mean disempowering men. A teacher can serve as both a model and a resource, encouraging students to consider problems of gender equality from multiple perspectives, helping them identify steps and objectives that do not exclude or discriminate against either gender. This can be done through broad initiatives at all levels of education, such as the formation of gender discussion groups and balanced, diverse curricula that displays men and women pursuing various activities and careers.

What does real gender empowerment in the classroom look like? Behaviors like favoring girls over boys, or criticizing students who dream of fulfilling traditional roles does little to create lasting change. Real empowerment calls for the shredding of assumptions, both about ourselves and others, that hold us back. Teachers should show enthusiasm for a broad range of interests. They should model critical thinking and decision-making skills, openly questioning their own expectations and thought processes. Teachers should ask students questions about roles they have chosen and divisions they have made between them. The goal of every teacher must be to help all students live the life THEY want to live, not the life WE want for them, in a way that maximizes both their own freedom and the freedom of others.

This kind of teaching goes beyond handing girls blue pencils and boys pink ones, swapping one gender norm for another. Teachers must ask students to consider their goals and help them develop strategies to reach them. Students must learn how to communicate these goals and needs to partners, co-workers and friends, and how to listen to those of others. Rather than ask girls what kind of husband they want, or compliment them on their looks; rather than ask boys about video games and sports, teachers should engage in thoughtful, curious dialogue with their students. Teaching students how to respond to classroom diversity by celebrating it, instead of limiting it, is not only important, it will create a strong Korean society where both men and women achieve success in whatever role they choose.

A version of this article appeared in ARC, Issue 7, September 2014.


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  1. Gender equality s a WESTERN, LIBERAL, FEMINIST ideology and has no place in Korean society. Can’t you see that?

  2. You wrote it is not surprising that a female was Korea’s first astronaut in space. If you were aware of the actual circumstances behind that decision you might conclude it was entirely surprising.

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