Like most women in their late thirties, I grew up dreaming of having a career, watching role models who have a career and family and seemed to manage both successfully. As I took on family responsibilities, those dreams started to seem as just that, dreams, especially during the few years I was a single mom.
How was I going to manage a full time career and the full time responsibility of raising a child on my own? My career choices became geared towards balancing the need to provide for myself and my daughter and my ambition, with my ambition often taking the back seat. At the time, I was lucky to be working for the Canadian Federal Public Service, an employer who offers support to women to balance their work and life. I still found it painful to have my ambitions take a back seat but I never realized how lucky I was to still be able to have a career at the time until I saw the challenges Korean women face in this area.
Many Korean mothers I speak with choose to leave their careers after having a child. Some of them live it as a painful experience, some of them accept it as a social obligation and find comfort in the fact that motherhood is so highly regarded in Korean society. In this case, the problem often becomes that the mother will project her identity and self-worth onto her child as success in her life will mean that her child grows up to fit the standards of success set by society, graduating from a major university and working for a major Korean conglomerate or as a doctor rather than choosing a career path that is truly appealing to them.
Then, there are the few brave Korean working moms who choose not to quit their careers. These few are constantly juggling priorities, having to navigate the complex realities of Korean workplaces where the emphasis is on the number of hours a person is present at the office rather than the actual productivity during those hours; having to compete with men who do not bear the burden of caring for children, parents or household chores. Of course, these are generalizations and as usual, the generational gap means that this is changing; however, is it changing fast enough to allow these well educated women to serve Korean society through their careers? Will these women in their 30s and 40s have the necessary support to fulfill their own dreams or will all their hard work put in through many years of schooling go unrewarded?
The precious lesson I learned is that women can only go as far as their support system allows them to. In my case, I had accessible day care with long hours, a family who fully supported my choice to pursue my dreams of having a career and eventually, married a man who believes that raising a family is a collaborative effort in all ways and who shares the burdens and the joys of having a family, down to the house chores. And yes, at times, when I cannot fully be fully present due to work commitments, he will take on my share of the work.
Most men in Korea have not yet migrated to this mindset. After all, they are themselves subject to a long standing tradition of women being the sole caretaker for the children, and are struggling to meet the heavy demands of the Korean workplace which requires very long hours at the office, socializing with colleagues after work and keeping up an alumni network which is often their portal to career advancement.
The few men who believe in being present to raise their children and dare to take parental leave where it is accessible know there is a social and professional advancement cost to such a decision, yet they are rays of hope that men are willing to step up and can become more involved in raising their children.
I recently asked a Korean friend of mine how women network in Korea. Her answer was that women do very little networking, which is not surprising I suppose given how few women actually remain in the workforce after giving birth.
Of the women who re-enter the workforce after having a child, most will quit due to social pressure and lack of resources to balance their careers and family lives. And why would they return given how the advancement possibilities for them become so dim? What is the incentive if they are not likely to find fulfillment in these part time jobs which are often below their skill level? So many dreams crushed, and tragically, so much potential for Korean society wasted.
With the birth rate so low in Korea and the aging population, Korea could greatly benefit from integrating women back into the job market and not in marginalized positions. Full scale market re-entry into their fields of study or collateral field of choice, a career continuation plan with real advancement to leadership positions. If motherhood is regarded so highly, then, why is it that it becomes the very reason women who answer the call become victims of this choice? Perhaps it is time to revisit the views on motherhood being a full time occupation to honor the dreams and contributions of mothers who also want to have careers.
While there have been some initiatives to raise awareness about the issue and policy targeting the problem, I believe the biggest change needed is a shift in the mindsets so that Korean society can truly see and embrace the value women bring to society through their work and value and encourage men’s contribution to the household in other ways than providing financially.