Posted : 2013-10-31 17:49
Updated : 2013-10-31 17:49

Korean women still underrepresented

Zonta International President Lynn McKenzie
Rebeca Grynspan, U.N. under-secretary-general and associate administrator of the U.N. Development Program
By Kwon Ji-youn

Korea has made some progress in narrowing the gender gap over the past years. However, it still has a long way to go before realizing women empowerment even though the nation has its first female president.

Zonta International President Lynn McKenzie has stressed that more women are allowed to take up higher positions in both public and private sectors as part of efforts to ensure gender equality.

During a Zonta International conference Oct. 26-27 in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, she noted that women are still underrepresented in government, community and in the decision-making process, whether they're in business or parliament.

"The U.N. identifies that currently just below 20 percent of seats in parliament globally are held by women, and that's very low and it has been consistently low," she said. "While it is great that Korea's president is a woman, I think only 16 percent of its National Assembly are women. That's significantly below the 20 percent."

McKenzie is concurrently president of Lynn McKenzie Consulting. She previously served as the chief of the New Horizons for Women Trust, which provides grants to assist women develop their potential.

Zonta International is a global service organization that aims at advancing the status of women worldwide, especially in public affairs and policy making. The first Zonta Club was founded in 1919 in Buffalo, New York, and the Zonta confederation was formed in 1930.

President's pledge against discrimination

President Park Geun-hye promised on Wednesday to make efforts to root out discrimination against women by revising a related law to expand the ratio of women in government committees to up to 40 percent.

She made the promise at the annual convention of women's rights leaders organized by the Korean National Council of Women at COEX in southern Seoul.

She said that the government has already formulated its budget proposal for next year with a 68 percent increase in funds for women-related projects.

Park pledged to do her best to make South Korea a better place for women to live in, with more jobs and better childcare services, rooting out gender-based discrimination in the process.

The pledge came five days after the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum ranked Korea 111th among 136 countries in terms of gender equality this year, down three notches from last year. Korea's ranking was similar to that of countries such as the United Arab Emirates (109), Bahrain (112), Qatar (115), and Kuwait (116).

The report indicates the need for Korea to make more efforts to provide equal opportunities for women in all walks of life.

According to a 2012 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only 15.7 percent of Korean parliament seats were occupied by women, ranking 105th among 190 nations. The figure is far lower than Sweden's 44.7 percent.

"Zonta International believes that women matter, not only because they hold up half the sky but because research shows that decisions and participation by women improves the lives of many," McKenzie said. "For example, research by McKinsey & Company shows that companies with more women on boards outperform those that don't in terms of revenue and sales."

McKenzie agreed with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he said "investing in women is not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do."

"I also see eye to eye with Silvia Cartwright who said that by ensuring that women are in senior roles, we make sure that the ladder is down so others can keep coming up," she added.

Rebeca Grynspan, U.N. under-secretary-general and associate administrator of the U.N. Development Program, said in a recent interview with The Korea Times that no one can overemphasize the importance of gender equality in bringing a specific experience and diversity to politics.

She pointed out that although there is a shortage of women politicians worldwide, Korea has made definite progress by having voted for Park Geun-hye as the country's first female president. "It will promote gender equality here in Korea," she added.

President Park Geun-hye, right, holds a placard calling for gender equality at the annual convention of women's rights leaders at COEX in southern Seoul,Wednesday. About 1,500 people attended the meeting hosted by the Korean National Council of Women. Standing to her right is Kim Jung-sook, president ofthe council. At third from right is Rep. Hwang Woo-yea, chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party. / Yonhap

Boost women's economic, political participation

McKenzie agreed with Grynspan. While Korea has got some way to go to reach gender equality, it has shown a great amount of potential, she said.

"Korea is underutilizing women, so we're saying, utilize half your population, because they can add something," she said. "Korea has got huge potential."
She suggested three ways for Korea to step up efforts to reinforce women's economic and political participation.

"First, one needs to ask the question ‘why not' rather than ‘why,'" she said. "We need to spent time removing the stereotypes of what a woman's role is. We have unconscious biases we need to address.

"Also, education is another way to women's economic empowerment," McKenzie said.

"In some parts of the world, if money's tight, the boy is educated, and the girl is not," she continued. "It's about what expectations do you place on the girl."

Lastly, she reiterated that successful governments have taken steps to have quotas or minimums, adding that with a female president in office, the possibility for the introduction of a gender equality quota into the election system has never been higher.

"There is some debate about quotas, but you have to set a benchmark," she said.

Many argue that positions should be granted based on capacity. If a man is more capable than a woman, why should they give their position up just because they are a man? Others argue that because of a shortage in intermediary female managers, organizations may need to hire externally.

"Generally speaking, they are not the only answer, but they are a part of the answer," she countered.

According to McKenzie, Rwanda has adopted a quota policy to commit to gender equality. Rwanda's quota system goes both ways in both directions.

"They have a quota that's something like 25 percent," she said. "Recently, the percentage of women in parliament rose from 55 to 65 percent."

"And they have an upper quota too. Seventy or 80 percent of the parliament can't be one gender. It goes both ways," she continued.

The European Union is steadily working toward appointing women to 40 percent of board member positions.

Korea also has in recent years attempted to implement such a quota in both sectors.

Rep. Chung Mong-joon of the ruling Saenuri Party visited Norway in May to get a better understanding of how its gender equality quota works. Norway was the first to have a quota law in 2005.

In 2007, the Lee Myung-bak administration included a clause in the recruitment and promotion guidelines for public entities that recommended women be appointed to 30 percent of executive positions. But the number of female executives in public positions dropped from 8.7 percent in 2008 to 8.5 percent in 2010.

Bill to raise women quotas

Earlier this year, Rep. Chung and 61 other lawmakers tabled a bill detailing ways in which government offices can hitch the percentage of women executive board members to 15 percent in three years and 30 percent in five years.

"Samsung has finally put some women in senior roles. And as big a company as they are, they need to," McKenzie said.

Some other companies are also putting the gender equality quota in place.
Kolon Group recently announced its plans to employ a quota to make sure at least 30 percent of their new recruits are women.

"If more women, as many as men, participate in economic activities, Korea is estimated to post an additional 1 percentage point in economic growth annually," Rep. Chung said upon his return from Norway. "If Korea's growth is limited to 2 percent in the future as they say, this means women will be in charge of half the growth."

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