Home > News > #MeToo crusaders in South Korea want to reform the election system. The plan could deliver more legislation on women’s issues.
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#MeToo crusaders in South Korea want to reform the election system. The plan could deliver more legislation on women’s issues.

It’s so controversial that legislators are having fistfights on the floor and scrums in the hallways

- September 26, 2019

Recently, the female nominee to lead South Korea’s fair trade commission came under attack for not having children. At her confirmation hearing, a male legislator first asked the Harvard-trained economist if she was married, and then proceeded to lecture her on how a low birthrate is “ruining” the country.

Incidents like this are nothing new in South Korea, which has one of the poorest gender equality records in the developed world. The country ranked last among 29 countries surveyed in The Economist’s glass ceiling index, and according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, its female homicide rate is higher than that of China, India or Pakistan. In recent years, South Koreans have expressed outrage and frustration about the nation’s rates of violence against women, hidden cameras capturing women in private, and an ingrained culture of sexual harassment and discrimination.

In response, a growing #MeToo movement has thrown its support behind electoral reform bills in the Korean National Assembly — proposals so controversial that they have led to fistfights on the floor of the chamber and scrums in the hallways. These bills would increase the number of proportional representation seats.

Proportional representation allows voters to vote for a party instead of an individual; seats are assigned based on the percentage of the overall vote each party receives, and are distributed in order to candidates on the party’s published list. Proponents believe proportional representation will lead to better representation of women’s interests. Opponents claim the proposal is a power grab by the major parties, but the pushback is also driven by the fact that the official opposition stands to lose seats through the proposed reforms.

According to our research, proportional representation does encourage both women and men legislators to sponsor and pass more bills addressing women’s issues. Here’s what we found.

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How we did our research

To study how proportional representation could affect how well the legislature represents women’s interests, we took advantage of South Korea’s two-tier balloting system, first introduced in 2004. In South Korea, voters complete two ballots to elect the national assembly. The first ballot lists the local candidates for a voter’s district, one of 253 districts in which voters cast ballots for individuals, much as happens in the United States, and the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. Political scientists call these “single member districts.”

The second ballot is a national-level vote for a party. The Korean National Assembly has 300 seats, so the remaining 47 seats are distributed proportionally based on each party’s share of the vote. The current reform bills propose a modest increase in proportional representation seats from 47 to 75, leaving the total number of seats at 300 while reducing the number of single-member seats, increasing each one’s size.

We gathered information on all 32,513 legislative bills proposed in the Korean National Assembly between 2004 and 2016, and on the 989 legislators who served during that time. Using text analysis software, we classified bills into 24 policy categories. In keeping with earlier research, we counted bills as being related to women’s issues if they fell into the policy categories of health care, education, social policy or civil liberties, such as protection against gender discrimination. Not all of these bills directly target women, but issues such as social welfare legislation or education policy directly have an impact on the domestic burden of care placed on women.

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Proportional representation encourages both male and female legislators to sponsor bills on women’s issues

Not surprisingly, we found women are 53 percent more likely to sponsor bills dealing with women’s issues than men are. As Michele Swers and other political scientists have shown in studying bills voted on in the U.S. Congress, women legislators are more likely to take action on bills concerning women’s issues, such as voting for them more than men. But electoral systems matter, too. We found both male and female legislators elected by proportional representation were more likely to sponsor bills on women’s issues than their counterparts elected in single-member districts.

Male representatives in proportional seats are 52 percent more likely than men in single-member districts to sponsor a bill dealing with women’s issues. That’s about the same rate of sponsorship as women in single-member districts. Legislators in this electoral system tend to assume moderate positions on important issues that appeal to a majority of their district voters. By contrast, in proportional representation, legislators are accountable to their party rather than to a district. Moreover, a candidate’s individual record means less to voters, giving legislators more flexibility to pursue nontraditional issues with little electoral cost.

Proportionally elected legislators are more effective at advancing bills concerning women’s issues than legislators from single-member districts

Furthermore, our research demonstrates that the legislature is more likely to pass bills related to women’s issues when they are sponsored by legislators elected on party lists than by members in single-member districts. Women representatives from single-member districts have the lowest success rate, while those elected from party lists are much likely to see their legislation pass.

Legislators elected through single-member districts focus on narrow legislation that benefits their district voters. In contrast, bills put forward by legislators chosen through proportional representation tend to have an orientation to national rather than to local interest, and are usually supported by the party.

What do our findings mean for women’s representation?

Should the reform bills pass, we would expect to see more legislation on women’s issues in Korea, including bills dealing with hotly debated issues such as penalties for illicit filming or viewing, tougher sentencing for sex offenders and support for working mothers.

Yesola Kweon is an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University (@YesolaKweon).

Josh M. Ryan is an associate professor of political science at Utah State University (@jryan4027).