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South Korea’s new leader says there’s no gender inequality problem

That will hurt women in politics there, our research finds

- April 25, 2022

South Korea’s president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol, won a tight race last month, after a campaign in which he repeatedly capitalized on a growing backlash against feminism among mostly young, male voters.

Yoon has called systemic gender inequality “a thing of the past” and said that he will prioritize talent and ability over achieving a gender balance with his presidential appointments. The incoming president pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and do away with his predecessor’s gender quota, which sought to ensure that women held at least 30 percent of ministerial posts.

Contrary to Yoon’s assertion, our new research documents the significant gender discrimination that exists in presidential cabinets across East and Southeast Asia, including South Korea. This discrimination limits not only the number of women appointed to cabinets but also the background experience of women who are elevated to top ministerial posts. Most notably, we find that while men from a variety of career backgrounds can often reach more-prestigious executive positions, women are much more likely to require a proven track record as an established politician to attain similar posts.

How are women treated in presidential cabinets?

Prior studies have long documented that women are less likely to be appointed to cabinets and tend to be assigned to less prestigious ministerial portfolios than men. We also find these patterns in South Korea. However, our study’s main contribution is to analyze whether women also face discrimination in their political careers after their initial cabinet appointment.

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To investigate the discrimination, we collected new data on the careers of all 1,374 ministers who have held office in the major presidential democracies in Asia since their respective democratizations, including the 515 ministers who have served in South Korea since the 1988 democratization. We then tested for gendered patterns in cabinet promotions — when a president approves the transfer of a minister from an initial appointment to a higher-prestige executive post, one with access to greater power and financial resources.

Overall, male and female cabinet ministers experience strikingly similar rates of promotion, our research finds. At first glance, this might seem to indicate that most gender discrimination occurs at the appointment stage — and that there’s greater gender parity afterward, which would be in line with Yoon’s comments as well as trends documented in many Western democracies.

However, while the overall promotion rates may be similar across genders, the impact of political experience on the likelihood of men and women receiving a promotion is quite different. For female ministers, having a background in politics — serving as a legislator or a top executive appointee, for instance — increases the chance of promotion by 17 percentage points more than it does for male ministers. Political experience thus matters much more for women’s upward mobility in cabinets than men’s.

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In practice, what these results mean is that promotions remain skewed. Presidents in Asia, including South Korea, often give promotions to male ministers who built their careers across government, politics, business and academia — but these same presidents also tend to grant promotions to a select group of female ministers. That select group, we found, had substantial political resources at their disposal from previously attaining top positions in the national legislature or executive branch of government.

What can we expect from the Yoon administration?

Our research suggests that the proposed elimination of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family would destroy an institution that has helped many women, including those without a political background, to initiate and build their cabinet careers. This ministry was the most common assignment for South Korea’s female ministers.

This ministry was established in 2001 when Han Myeong-sook, a social activist for South Korea’s democratization during the authoritarian period and a foundational member of President Kim Dae-jung’s ruling Millennium Democratic Party, took office as the first minister. Han built a long political career after this initial appointment and went on to become South Korea’s first female prime minister.

And Yoon’s decision to abandon a gender quota for his cabinet suggests that there will be fewer opportunities for women, especially those without political experience, to take on senior posts in the new administration. Of the 18 ministers that Yoon has announced thus far, only three are women, two of whom served in previous administrations. Apart from losing out on the talent of potential female cabinet members from a greater diversity of backgrounds, the dearth of female ministers will probably have consequences for the broader participation of women in South Korean politics. And fewer female ministers in Yoon’s cabinet may make it less likely that South Korea’s new government will focus on implementing policies favored by women.

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These consequences are especially concerning given that South Korea — despite Yoon’s assertions to the contrary — continues to lag behind other countries on many indicators of gender equality. For instance, South Korea has the largest gender wage gap, lowest share of women on the boards of publicly listed companies and fifth-lowest percentage of female legislators among the 38 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Women appear destined to be underrepresented in Yoon’s cabinet, a trend that continues to be prevalent across Asian presidential democracies. But it’s possible that the South Korean cabinets may become more balanced over time as more women gain cabinet positions. However, that will be feasible only when presidents place greater value on seeking gender balance at the cabinet level and empower gateway ministries, such as a women’s affairs ministry, that can boost the ability of more women to initiate and build their cabinet careers.

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Don S. Lee is an assistant professor at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea.

Charles T. McClean (@cmcclean) is the Toyota visiting professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies.