Is South Korea failing women in the workplace? Just look at Hyundai Motor

Is South Korea failing women in the workplace? Just look at Hyundai Motor
  • PublishedOctober 7, 2023

When Hwang Ji-sun, 52, first joined the assembly line at South Korean carmaker Hyundai 22 years ago, women like her had it tough.

There weren’t enough bathrooms for them, she recalled, and female technicians were paid less than their full-time male colleagues, because they could only be hired as contractors from staffing companies, not as staff.

In fact, it was only this summer that Hyundai directly hired female factory workers in South Korea for the first time since its founding in 1967, according to the Korea Metal Workers’ Union. The company recruited six women technicians in July.

For Hwang — who became a staff employee only six years ago — it felt like a hard-won, if grudging, victory.

“It almost feels like the company made the decisions as it couldn’t ignore the social pressure and wanted to showcase the recruitment this time,” she told CNN.

For years, unions and activist groups had been calling on the auto giant to improve inclusion on what they called its “male-dominated sites.”

News of the hirings has sparked a wider discussion about the gender pay disparity in South Korea, which has the highest wage gap among all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

Despite being one of the world’s most advanced economies, experts say women in the country still aren’t getting the same opportunities as men, and are rarely represented on boardrooms or factory floors.

“Korean society’s practice of classifying jobs according to gender still exists, and Hyundai Motor’s case is a reflection of that,” said Jung Sungmi, a research fellow at the Korean Women’s Development Institute, referring to cultural attitudes that some jobs should be done by men.

While Hyundai’s latest move seems largely symbolic for now, she added, “it can be seen as a good sign, because that could lead to a trend moving away from the current fixed gender roles at workplaces.”

A fresh start

When Hwang joined Hyundai in Ulsan, a coastal city, the mother of two was ready for a fresh start after working at a shoe factory. The main task in her first job at the carmaker was relatively simple: applying black tape to door frames.

As a contractor, Hwang said her salary was between 1.4 and 1.5 million Korean won ($1,000 to $1,100) a month including overtime pay, compared with the approximately 2 million Korean won ($1,500) earned by other full-time employees, who were all men.

Then, in 2012, a Supreme Court ruling found Hyundai’s practice of keeping contract production workers, male or female, off its staff illegal, allowing Hwang and others to become full-time employees.

For Hwang, though, the promotion didn’t officially happen until five years later, following lengthy negotiations between labor unions and management.

Now, she says full-time female workers get paid the same as their male counterparts. At her facility, there are more bathrooms and even showers for women. More women have joined, too, accounting for about 90 of the approximately 3,600 workers at her factory.

Hyundai confirmed to CNN it had hired female engineers this year, while declining to share details, citing company policy. It declined to confirm how many women worked at its other factories around the globe, such as in the United States, Turkey or India.

Hyundai introduces its new 'Stargazer X' model during an auto show in  Indonesia in August.

Hyundai introduces its new ‘Stargazer X’ model during an auto show in Indonesia in August.Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

In the United States, just under 28% of auto workers are female, according to 2022 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For comparison, about 9% to 10% of the workforce in South Korea’s heavy industry sectors, which includes the automobile industry, are women, according to the closest comparable government statistics from Affirmative Action, a foundation under the country’s Ministry of Employment and Labor.

A wider problem

Despite the incremental improvements, South Korea still has widespread problems of gender-based exclusion and low pay, researchers say. On average, women in the country are paid a third less than men, according to OECD data, compared to a gender pay gap of 17% in the United States.

The trend exists “despite an above-average level of female tertiary education” in South Korea, noted researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) in a 2022 report.

Additionally, the country’s labor force participation rate is 20 percentage points lower for women than for men, a gap that is wider than the average for high-income countries, they added.

“These disparities, as well as fertility that is the lowest of any advanced economy country in the world, reduce South Korea’s future economic prospects.”

South Korea’s fertility rate, or the average number of children expected per woman, fell to 0.78 last year.

PIIE researchers said their analysis “suggests that the combination of low female employment and low fertility in South Korea reflects features of the traditional nature of work that create a particularly stark tradeoff for women between work and family and put pressure on women to choose one or the other.”

Data cited by PIIE shows that married women, particularly those with children, are unlikely to be in work.

“Unmarried women with no children are just as likely to be employed as men,” the researchers wrote.

Gita Gopinath, first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has proposed South Korea adopt new measures to help keep women in the workforce.

Making childcare more affordable, lowering the number of working hours or allowing more flexible arrangements is key, she told a South Korean forum last September.

“With rapid aging and low birth rates expected to reduce Korea’s labor force, higher female labor force participation is critical to boost economic growth.”

Calls for change

Part of the problem, according to activists, is that businesses aren’t transparent about how women are treated.

While public institutions are required by law to disclose detailed gender ratio data, private sector employees are not, according to unions.

At a March press conference, several worker and activist groups urged companies to be more forthright about their recruitment practices.

Roh Helena, solidarity movement manager of the Korean Women Workers Association, said she had written to Hyundai Motor numerous times requesting information on how many women were recruited each year to the company, without receiving a response.

Asked for data, Hyundai Motor provided CNN with an annual report that showed the ratio of female executives, managers and engineers collectively stood at 6.4% in 2022. Meanwhile, only two directors on its 12-member board are female.

Similar discrepancies show up in public sector figures, too.

From 2018 to 2022, there were 18,000 more men than women who secured interviews at 350 public sector employers in the country, local labor unions said in a March statement.

In a culturally conservative society like South Korea, much more needs to be done to change perceptions about women in male-dominated professions, according to Hwang.

“When you hear about a forklift operator, people think of a man, right?” she said. “I believe it’s essential to demonstrate that women can perform equally to men.”


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