Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

South Korea can close gender gap

By Lee Jong-wha (China Daily) Updated: 2014-03-25 07:41

Over the last half-century, South Korea has made considerable economic progress, with per capita income increasing from a mere $80 dollars in 1960 to more than $22,000 last year. But its potential for sustained growth is faltering, owing to the imminent decline of its working-age population - projected to fall by 25 percent by 2050 - and rising competition from China and other emerging economies. In order to improve its prospects, South Korea must pursue economic reform and restructuring, with an emphasis on maximizing its human-capital resources - especially women.

South Korea's success over the last five decades owes much to the rapid growth of its well-educated labor force. From 1960 to 2010, the share of adults with a secondary education soared from 20 percent to an impressive 87 percent. By boosting productivity, increasing returns on investment, and facilitating technological adaptation and innovation, South Korea's abundance of well-educated workers has served as the foundation for its export-oriented development strategy.

But women remain underutilized, to the detriment of the entire economy. Indeed, any effective South Korean growth strategy must create more and better economic opportunities for women, in part by establishing more accommodating working environments and instituting a more diverse and flexible education system.

To its credit, South Korea has built a relatively gender-equal society. The gender gap in enrollment in both secondary and higher education is very small; and women's access to elite positions in law, medicine, and the civil service has increased considerably in recent years. The country elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, in 2012.

But a significant gender gap remains in terms of the return on human capital. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only 55 percent of South Korean women aged 15-64 are in the labor force, compared to an average of 65 percent in the advanced economies. South Korea's male labor-force participation rate, by contrast, stands at about 77 percent - close to the OECD average of 79 percent.

Women who have completed secondary or tertiary education are more likely to enter and remain in the labor market than their less educated counterparts. The labor - participation rate for women with post-secondary education is 64 percent, far exceeding the 35 percent rate for those with only a primary or middle - school education.

But, even for South Korea's most highly educated and capable female workers, child rearing is a major career obstacle. In fact, South Korean women participate in the labor force at roughly the average rate for the OECD while they are in their late twenties. The problem is that the rate drops sharply from 71 percent to 57 percent among women in their 30's, as inflexible working environments and a lack of affordable childcare undermine their ability to continue investing in their careers.

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