By: Richard King
Since we last reported on the opportunities and challenges for women in these growing economies, some things have improved and some have not. The consumer economy with its market based economic policies has brought with it some interesting challenges for women. In the most recent Global Gender Gap Report put out by the World Economic Forum, China ranked 69th, Korea 108th, Japan 101th,with the US ranked 22nd. Clearly with all of the progress being made there is still room for improvement.
Of interest to us was the surprising finding that women’s participation in entrepreneurial endeavors has declined over the past several years, with women retreating into perceived safer employment opportunities. Women graduating from business in university prefer to join government agencies and public institutions instead of the risks (and rewards) present in entrepreneurial enterprises. This downturn in interest was fueled by the economic downturn that reverberated around the world in 2008.
Women in China, Japan and Korea share similar issues with women in North America, when it comes to balancing work and family life. Across all cultural boundaries there are still disparities between a women’s earning power and their ability to rise up in business organizations. Chinese and Korean women now make up 45% of the workforce with Japan trailing at only 25%. By comparison, women in the United States make up 47% of the labor force. There has been little change for women in these countries in senior level positions. The income disparity has stayed stagnant over the past five years.
“You have to be a superwoman to continue your career as everything related to housework and childcare are seen as women’s responsibility,” says Kim Jung-sook, the head of Korean National Council of Women, a civic group that promotes women’s rights
Despite the Chinese government’s policy initiated by Mao Zedong, that “women hold up half the sky”, women have different concerns and responsibilities than their male counterparts. In China as well as Japan and Korea, it is expected that it will be the wife who takes time off of work to care for sick children or relatives. These women suffer from “daughter-in-law guilt” and “mother guilt”, if they feel that they are not able to meet all of the obligations that society requires. Many women in the US and Canada will acknowledge that they too have to deal with the same issues.
There is an interesting “catch 22” that befalls women in these regions. It is considered that 27 is the optimal age to marry, and if a woman is older or single she will face discrimination. Women were told in interviews that they were unsuitable for the jobs they were applying for due to their age and marital status. The reason why is because employers do not want to have the expense for maternity leave. To complicate the matter, many women do not go back to work after having children. This is due to several reasons. Many cite that there is no flexibility in the workplace for family needs. Others have said that they have received low performance reviews upon their return. In Korea especially, the work day is very long, including evening socializing which is considered a part of the work load. Some women return to work after their children are school age, but find that the jobs that are available to them are on the lower wage scale, with menial tasks.
For all three economies, there is growing concern from demographers and government agencies that report these types of issues. The concern is that without more women entering and staying in the workplace, combined with falling population growth, there will not be enough workers to keep the economic engines going. Prime Minister Abe in Japan has cited the importance of women in the workforce. Korean law makers are working to change laws to support women and their families. In China government officials are looking deeply at the prognosis of what the “one-child policy” will mean in the future, with a reduced work force and burgeoning aging population. All three governments agree that creating ways for women to enter and stay in the workforce will mitigate some of the problems that they will encounter in the future. There is strong support to create change in these cultures to support women in the workplace. We can support these changes by continuing to support women in the workplace here in North America.