Childcare is a necessary but expensive service for many working parents in the United States, who often assume 90% of daycare costs. However, as difficult as finding a reputable and affordable care provider can be, growing trends like corporate childcare are slowly making this process easier for many. This fact stands in sharp contrast to countries like South Korea, where a shortage of dependable childcare is forcing many women to give up their careers.
Like many countries, South Korea is a patriarchal society, where most executive positions are held by men and stay-at-home moms are idealized. But this northeast Asian nation is also the fastest-aging developed country in the world, with the working-age population expected to begin declining next year. With this possibility on the horizon, the low rate of female participation in the workforce could have serious consequences for South Korea’s economy and progress in coming years.
In 2013, government data found that 22.4% of all married women in South Korea aged 15 to 54 quit their jobs due to their marriage, childbirth or the need for childcare. As a result, only 56% of working age women were participating in the workforce.
Given the conditions South Korean women face in the working world, this statistic is somewhat understandable: in 2012, studies found that women in South Korea only earned 65% of what men were paid, a gap that has barely changed since the 1990s. This difference is the widest among countries who participate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED). However, officials say that these factors are not what is discouraging female employees.
“We have succeeded in recruiting women to the workforce, but retaining them is difficult,” said Kim Hee-jung, minister of family and gender equality.
Instead, most South Korean women find that the needs of their families clash with their country’s demanding corporate culture. As a nation famous for its hardworking lifestyle, it is common for employees to work overtime, and attendance at company events is required, making it difficult for women to bow out if their child is sick.
In other countries, these women would likely rely heavily on childcare to help them bridge their families and their professions. However, finding reliable centers is near impossible. Waiting lists for cheaper, bettter-maintained centers run by the state can push out more than a year, with an estimated 98,000 children in line for these official facilities. But while these daycare centers account for only 5% of the country’s childcare providers, parents are reluctant to trust many potential caregivers. In January, a daycare worker was caught on camera knocking a toddler to the ground, and additional footage of daycare abuse soon followed. The incidents spurred calls for closer monitoring of schools and childcare centers, but also encouraged parents to keep their children at home, preventing more women from rejoining the workforce.
To halt this trend, the government has urged a number of family-run conglomerates in South Korea to take measures to help mothers back into the workforce. Unfortunately, few are willing to spend the time or women to employ women with gaps in their work history. As a result, not only is a significant amount of the population unemployed, but the companies themselves could be missing out on some major benefits of corporate childcare.
“The benefits of onsite care extend far beyond the convenience of the family; the employer benefits greatly as well,” said Elaine Errico from Hildebrandt Learning Center. “Providing onsite care is a huge benefit when trying to recruit talented staff, it increases an employee’s’ productivity, and creates a sense of caring about the family. An additional benefit is onsite centers set their hours based on the needs of the sponsoring organization. It is truly a great solution.”
The South Korean government has been trying a number of tactics to improve the country’s childcare options and help working women. For example, the gender equality ministry has attempted to strengthen existing policies by increasing the number of childcare helpers provided by the government, and by creating centers to mentor unemployed mothers. Additionally, President Park Geun-hye, northeast Asia’s first female head of state, announced in December that the government would be creating a 50 billion won venture fund for future female business leaders, equal to about $46 million US. However, despite these efforts, South Korea was still ranked 117 out of 142 nations in the last WEF Global Gender Gap Index, much lower than neighboring countries China and Japan. Park has also been criticized for failing to champion opportunities for women.
In this challenging situation, it appears to be other women who are doing the most for working mothers. Take the Haan Corporation, for example: a company that makes steam-cleaning products, the business was founded by Romi Haan, a housewife and mother, in 1999. Today, Haan Corp forbids its employees from working overtime on Wednesdays to encourage staff to spend more time with their families. The company also encourages employees to work flexible hours and strives to create enough lead time to allow female employees to plan around their maternity leaves. While the business employs just 90 people in South Korea, 23 of them women, these changes are enough in this patriarchal, hardworking country to allow people to hope that things may soon shift.