More South Korean companies should follow the lead of Samsung Electronics Co. and Lotte Group by hiring and promoting more women, said Minister for Gender Equality and Family Cho Yoon Sun.
Samsung Chairman Lee Kun Hee cited the importance of hiring more women as early as 1993, and since then his company, with a market capitalization of $177.6 billion, has steadily increased the number of female employees, Cho said in an interview with Bloomberg News this week in New York.
Lotte Group, which owns department stores, hotels and confectionery and beverage companies, has as many as 650 female managers, not including 50 who are on maternity leave, she said.
Cho’s government has followed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s advice to use peer pressure to encourage businesses to hire more women. It’s part of an effort to meet President Park Geun Hye’s goal of creating 1.65 million new jobs for women by February 2018, the end of her term as the country’s first female leader.
South Korea added 382,000 jobs for women in February from a year ago, the biggest increase since February 2002, according to a government job report on March 12.
An OECD report submitted to Park last year estimates that South Korea would add about 1 percentage point to GDP growth if it had equal employment. The economy grew 2.8 percent last year.
“The great challenge that we are facing is the confidence of the CEOs and the confidence of the management in whether family friendly and work-life balance methods are only a waste of costs or not,” Cho said. “We don’t have mandatory laws, however we found that it is very very important to spread out the mindset that the culture of family friendly management is good for sustainable growth of the company, as well as the employees.”
Cho said she was able to use the examples set by Suwon-based Samsung and Seoul-based Lotte to press Hyundai Motor Co., also based in Seoul, to create more part-time jobs for women who seek flexible hours to balance work and family lives.
Women made up 4.8 percent of the staff of the company’s Hyundai Motor Group in 2012, according to Seoul-based research firm CEOScore. Hyundai Motor Co., the group’s largest unit and the nation’s biggest carmaker, said in an e-mail that it had one woman among its 246 executives as of Sept. 30.
“I was told that Hyundai declared it will create decent part-time jobs for females and researched what kind of places, what kind of jobs they can provide to females,” Cho said. “It is a good sign of peer pressure by spreading out that atmosphere in the entire society, as it seems the company then feels some pressures to create a more female-friendly environment.”
Cho’s ministry is working with the Financial Services Commission, South Korea’s financial watchdog, to encourage all listed companies to report the number of male and female managers and board members and publicize what else they’re doing to promote family-friendly management.
The commission and the ministry vet the information that companies provide and give approval for qualified companies to disclose their status in regulatory filings as “family friendly approved.”
“This is important information for investors because it’s a strong commitment for the sustainable growth of a company,” Cho said. “We have a newspaper report that said some of the companies that disclosed the information have seen their stock prices rising. That is a kind of positive reaction from the market.”
Not Park’s Style
None of these moves are mandatory, and the South Korean government doesn’t seek to strong-arm businesses into boosting gender equality because “that is not the style of our president,” said Cho, who served as Park’s spokeswoman during her 2012 presidential campaign.
“She emphasized very much not driving the companies too much, and that she doesn’t want to see companies reluctantly create part-time jobs while they don’t think they need to and while they don’t think it’s helpful,” Cho said.
Fundamental changes in Korea’s “mindset and culture” must take hold for any policies to succeed, said Cho.
Park’s historic election has been the first step, as it’s prompted male cabinet ministers to think how they can communicate well and get along with women, a break from the past when women were forced to adapt to a male-dominated society, she said.
Cho said that she, too, was guilty of “unnaturally” forcing herself to adapt to working in a male-dominated society, in her previous capacities as a corporate lawyer at Kim & Chang, a South Korean law firm with offices in a number of countries; executive vice president and chief legal officer of Citibank Korea Inc.; and a member of the National Assembly.
Citibank Korea, a unit of New York-based Citigroup Inc., now has three female executive vice presidents: the chief finance officer, the head of operations and technology and the chief of trade and treasury solution. Current Citibank Korea Chairman Ha Yung Ku said Cho’s rise, too, has helped break down barriers for women.
“She achieved far more than we expected and opened the door wide for more female workers and officials to move up the ladder,” Ha said.
Cho is still balancing work and family life, even during her seven-day visit to New York this week to attend the annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which reviews global progress on women’s rights.
She gave a lecture at New York University, where the youngest of her two daughters is a freshman, on “comfort women” -- the name given to those forced to serve in Japanese military brothels during Japan’s occupation of Asia.
Second to her native Seoul, Cho said, she feels most at home in New York, where she earned a degree from Columbia Law School.