Cracking Korea Inc.'s Glass Ceiling

Career women are making headway

Marriage and male chauvinism have crushed the career aspirations of many a Korean woman, but not Choi Young Sun. She resisted pressure from her husband to quit her job as a systems analyst at Unisys Korea Ltd., hiring a baby-sitter to mind her young son. Eventually, though, her husband won the day, and Choi became a full-time mother.

Four years later, she had had enough. Increasingly at odds with her spouse, Choi divorced him in 1985 and joined a startup founded by her former boss at Unisys. Five years after that, she struck out on her own, starting Addon Co., which designs Web-billing software and now does $3 million in annual sales. Initially, Choi wasn't taken seriously. "Few people believed I was CEO," she recalls. "They kept asking if my husband ran the company." In fact, Choi's experiences prompted her to lend office space and facilities to other women in business, and she has helped dozens start their own companies. "I wanted to be a role model," says Choi, 50. "And I see many female CEOs around now."

Career women like Choi are becoming increasingly common in South Korea. And not a moment too soon, say economists. With the population rapidly aging and most able-bodied men already employed, the nation requires millions of educated new workers as it morphs from a manufacturing to a service economy. Of course, women have long been in the workforce, but as shopkeepers, textile workers, factory hands, and the like. Now, increasingly, they are taking managerial positions. Consider that in 1986 just 1.6% of Korean executives were women. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, they accounted for 7.1% of executive posts.

NO HOSTESS BARS. Already, say women execs, they are influencing how business is done. For starters, they are unlikely to entertain clients at hostess bars, as men do. And because they have been denied careers for so long, Korean women are keen to make an impact. Anecdotal evidence suggests that their male colleagues are being forced to boost their own productivity as a result. Gender relations are changing, too. Two years ago, Kathy Kim, 23, started her own company selling greeting and invitation cards online. She plans to marry soon but has no intention of quitting her business, which now boasts 13 corporate customers. "In fact," Kim says, "my boyfriend likes career women."

To be sure, the Korean boardroom remains a mostly male preserve. Of the nation's 100,000-plus companies with 10 employees or more, just 7% are run by women. And only 54% of college-educated women are working, the lowest percentage of any developed nation. Still, more women are earning postgraduate degrees, starting enterprises, and running big companies. Says self-made woman Kim Sung Joo: "There has been a revolutionary change."

Kim is very much part of that revolution. Her father, energy tycoon Kim Soo Keun, cut her out of his will when she went into business against his wishes. Today, Kim, 45, is CEO of Sung Joo International Ltd., a 42-outlet boutique-fashion retailer with some $100 million in annual sales. She believes the Asian crisis shook loose the male grip on the economy. It swept through society like a "forest fire," she reckons, taking with it the "concrete ceiling" that has prevented women from rising to the top. "I have faced barriers all my life," says Kim, "but the crisis created a new ecosystem where women entrepreneurs can thrive."

The crisis was indeed a great leveler. For one thing, it forced Korean companies to adopt global business practices that include rewarding performance regardless of seniority or gender. At the same time, many men found themselves out of work or with substantially smaller paychecks. To maintain their families' standard of living, wives in middle-class households had to work. Although male execs resisted the trend, foreign investors buying Korean companies after the crisis were willing to hire women. Before being bought out by a consortium led by U.S. investment house Hambrecht & Quist, Seoul brokerage Good Morning Securities Co. had no female researchers. Today, 14 of 35 researchers are women. At Korea First Bank, the number of female managers has risen from 104 in 1999, when California-based Newbridge Capital Group took over, to 149 today.

The Internet boom and IT revolution have been another blessing for Korean women. Since 1998, women have founded 246 tech startups--still less than 4% of the total, but more than double the number of such companies founded by women in the previous 10 years. Even at the chaebol, where women rarely have been promoted, IT units are recognizing young female talent. Fully 21% of assistant managers at Samsung Group's software unit are women. Less than 5% of supervisors are women in most of Samsung's other units.

One reason women are thriving in the technology sector is that over the past 20 years, parents have encouraged them to seek higher education. Nearly half of the 585,000 students who graduated from colleges, universities, and grad schools this year were women. That's a vast improvement from 20 years ago, when only 30% of grads were female. Moreover, of those grads who landed jobs this year, nearly half were women, compared with 29.8% in 1980. "In the past, women wanted to marry men with good jobs and skills," says Park Eun Young, a 27-year-old accountant at a Seoul company. "But now we want to have good jobs and become professionals ourselves."

INCUBATORS. The government is spending some $3.8 million this year to promote entrepreneurship among women. This help includes running incubators, providing training, and holding seminars. The government also amended the Equal Employment Act, lengthening maternity leave to 90 days from 60 days and banning companies from having different standards for promoting men and women.

One major challenge is providing adequate day-care facilities. While the government has spent $1.5 billion over the past decade to increase the number of child-care centers to 20,000 from 2,000, the centers are open only up to 5 p.m. and don't accept children younger than three. Since most Korean men are loath to help with kids or do domestic chores, women still need to rely on female relatives for baby-sitting.

Patriarchal attitudes are hard to change at the office, too. "You still get business clients asking us to replace women consultants with men," laments Choi Jung Kiu, a Seoul-based principal at McKinsey & Co. Bankers continue to require female CEOs to get loan guarantees from their husbands. Yun Yuh Soon, vice-president at LG Management Development Institute, says that the old-boy network remains committed to keeping women out of the decision-making loop. "Professionally accomplished women need to build networks of their own," she says. Still, when Yun got her current job last year, she became the first woman executive at LG Group, the nation's second-largest conglomerate. When the going gets tough, Korean women get going.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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