Women Become Victims of Expectation Game
By Kang Hyun-kyung
With the term "alpha girls" becoming a media buzzword, working moms in most cultures are burned out. Harvard University psychologist Dan Kindlon coined the term of an alpha girl to refer to a woman who doesn't feel limited by her sex and is a person first and then a woman.
The primary role of women in the home virtually hasn't changed over the past decades, but they are asked to commit more at work, making them the victims of the expectation game.
For women at work, balancing work and household duties gets tougher as time goes by, and the hostile environment, gender experts say, is mainly responsible for falling birth rates in some advanced countries such as Korea, Germany, Japan and Italy.
Amid falling birth rates sweeping through the developed world, a latest National Assembly report finds that nations having relatively higher birth rates have one thing in common: The community shares the burden traditionally carried by women through supportive work and family policies.
German Ambassador to Korea Hans-Ulrich Seidt shared the view that contemporary women have become victims of the expectation game as the male-dominated society has changed in a way that has encouraged highly-educated women to play an active role in labor markets as well as the community.
"Korea and Germany share similar experiences in the patterns of economic growth and birth rates over the past decades," he said in an interview with The Korea Times last week.
During the period, the ambassador said the two economies have been successful on one hand, but on the other they face a situation where more and more young women are reluctant to have babies.
"It is one of the top policy priorities of our German government, and I suppose the same is true here in Korea, to help the younger generation build families and to help them raise their children in a safe environment on a sound economic basis," he said.
Like Korea, Germany has been plagued by the falling total fertility rate (TFR) as the figure has continued to drop since the 1970s.
In 2008, the TFR ― which refers to the number of children a woman has during her lifetime ― in Germany stood at 1.38, far below the rate of 2.1 that is needed for gender replacement.
The corresponding rate for Korea in the same year was 1.19, making it the country with the lowest birth rate among member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Growing Burdens for Women
Gender experts share the notion that men become fathers, while women serve as parents, primarily taking care of family chores at home when they have children.
They say this makes it difficult for women to reconcile work and family life.
In her empirical study in 2002, Swedish gender expert Lisbeth Bekkengen found that women and men are placed in different situations when they have children.
Men can choose their level of involvement as parents, while women accept the primary responsibility for parenthood, she observed in her thesis, titled "You Have to Choose: Parenthood and Parental Leave in Working Life and Family Life."
Mikael Nordenmark of Umea University in Sweden shares the view that women are responsible for most of the household work and care of the children, saying this places them under stress and impedes their professional careers.
The sociologist finds that one out of three women working under full-time contracts feel the need to reduce their working hours for their family duties, which is significantly higher than men having full-time jobs.
Amid falling birth rates becoming a trend in most advanced economies, some nations such as France, Norway and Sweden have seen relatively high birth rates at a time when employed women face a tough working and family environment.
The contrasting trend in birth rates in the two groups ― Korea, Germany and Japan seeing falling birth rates, and France, Norway and Sweden having higher rates ― raised a question: Why are women in some countries willing to have children, while their counterparts in other nations are reluctant to?
Empirical studies show that women in reproductive countries are less stressed than their counterparts in countries fighting falling fertility rates when reconciling their duties at home and work.
According to a National Assembly Budget Office (NABO) report released last week, the governments of countries with high TFR introduced supportive work and family policies a long time ago, shouldering part of working women's household duties.
Those governments set up many public daycare centers, sponsored preschool programs and encouraged spouses to have parental leave.
The report found those nations have other characteristics that encourage women to start a family and have children.
"The labor market in the United States having higher birth rates is so flexible that women workers have fewer difficulties finding jobs after having babies or raising children than their counterparts in other nations," said Kim Min-jae, budget analyst at the NABO.
"Many part-time jobs are available for women having children in the labor market in the reproductive nations so they can arrange their working hours around their family."
Compared with Korea, Kim pointed out that much more workers use parental leave in Scandinavian nations.
"The main reason why fewer Koreans choose maternity leave is because female workers here are concerned about the possible negative affect on their career," Kim said.
France, which in 2008 had the highest fertility rate of 2.02 among European countries, used to be one of the European countries to face declining birth rates about a century ago.
Being wary of the detrimental social and economic effects of falling birth rates, the French government has introduced a strong level of family policies since the 1990s.
Pierre Moussy, counselor at the French embassy in Seoul, told The Korea Times that helping women deal with family and work is one of the French government's top policy priorities.
"Great efforts have been put to provide good quality childcare services, particularly through a substantial increase in daycare centers and financial support to households for the private nursing of children," he said.
France subsidized children and families from pregnancy to young adulthood with the supportive measures, which caused the nation to become the leader in terms of TFR.
Earlier, Minister of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Jeon Jae-hee said she has looked closely at the French style of work and family policies to tackle falling birth rates here.
Her remark drew skepticism from some economists because of the financial burden that the government should shoulder. Economists say approximately $12.5 billion will be needed to fulfill Minister Jeon's commitment, adding this is almost unfeasible.
Kristoffer Lund Langlie, executive officer of the Norwegian embassy in Seoul, attributed Norway's high fertility rate to the government's strong support for parental leave and free preschool programs.
The Nordic country had a fertility rate of 1.91, close to the level needed for gender replacement, in 2008, making it a nation with one of the highest birth rates in Europe.
According to Langlie, Norwegian workers are entitled to have paid leave from work in the first year when having a baby. If they choose leave of 46 weeks, they will be fully paid. In the case of 56 weeks, workers get paid 80 percent of their income.
Fathers have had the right to share parental leave from 1977.
"Despite the paid leave, only 2 to 3 percent of fathers took advantage of the opportunity. So the government introduced the paternal quota in 1993 to encourage more fathers to participate in taking care of their children in the first year they were born," Langlie said.
"Today, 10 weeks of the parental leave period are reserved for fathers. If they don't use it, these weeks will be forfeited."
Norway was the first country in the world to implement such a policy.