By Kim Rahn
Women in their 20s are more economically active than men as more and more young women opt to build their careers instead of marrying, according to Statistics Korea, Thursday.
This is the first time that women in any age group have surpassed men in terms of economic activity since the agency began compiling related data in 1999.
The survey showed 62.9 percent of 20-something women were engaged in economic activities last year, while 62.6 percent of men in that age group were working.
In 2002, the female activity rate was 61.1 percent and the male rate was 70.9 percent. While the women's rate has remained between 61 and 64 percent through ups and downs for the last decade, the men's rate has continued to fall.
However, the rate of women's participation drops sharply after they turn 30. That's because most women marry in their 30s and many of them leave their workplace, the agency said.
Experts say women's high rate of college entrance is one of reasons for the active involvement. In 2009, the ratio of female high school graduates advancing to college exceeded that of males for the first time, 82.4 percent to 81.6 percent, and that trend has continued since.
"Now women are almost equally educated as men, so they are equally qualified and prepared for jobs," said Kim Young-ock, a senior fellow of the Korean Women's Development Institute.
Another reason is that women these days tend to marry and give birth at a later age.
"The average age of women getting married was around 27 about a decade ago, but now is almost 30. Many women in their 20s used to quit their jobs due to marriage or childbirth, but now they remain in the labor market," Kim said.
The activity rate of women in their 30s was 56 percent last year, while that of men in that age group was 93.3 percent.
Because of various types of glass ceiling, women find it difficult to continue working and obtain promotions. In the banking industry, 48.8 percent of a total 81,234 workers at the nation's six largest banks as of February were women, but only 4.4 percent of executive positions were held by women.
Although many women re-enter the workforce later in life, many only attain low-paid irregular jobs. According to 2011 data, the average monthly salary for female workers was 1.54 million won, only 63.3 percent of the male average of 2.44 million won. The gender wage gap is the widest among OECD member states.
Kim said women ceasing to be active economically has an impact nationally as well, because Korea's working-age population is also decreasing.
"Various measures are being discussed to retain women in the workforce, including flexible working hours or telecommuting, but such measures are feared to drive more women into non-regular positions. Rather, companies should allow female workers to make full use of already existing systems, such as maternity or childcare leave," she said.