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Leveraging the Pandemic to Boost Gender Parity in South Korea and Japan

Even though the pandemic brought about its own hardships for each society, none of its impacts are unique. But what the spread of COVID has done is make clear what the vulnerabilities are and how the health crisis has hurt women in particular. With the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel seemingly in sight, the question for South Korea and Japan is: what now? How can both countries learn from the pandemic and fundamentally redesign their economies to service greater gender parity?

Ironically, the pandemic stands to reverse decades of hard-earned progress. Pre-pandemic, South Korean women’s labor force participation rate was inching up to match their male counterpart’s. Between 2009 and 2019, the gender gap had shrunk by roughly 4 percentage points, standing at almost 54 percent by the end of the decade. Numbers in Japan were equally hopeful, with women’s share of the labor force jumping to roughly 44 percent in 2019, a sharp upward trajectory compared to previous years.

The hardest hit sectors—wholesale and retail trade, accommodations, and the food sector—and frontline essential workers contained a significant and disproportionately female population.

During the pandemic, however, women’s employment plummeted faster than men’s. The hardest hit sectors—wholesale and retail trade, accommodations, and the food sector—and frontline essential workers contained a significant and disproportionately female population. In South Korea, the regular employment rate held steady but at the heavy cost of non-regular workers—again, disproportionately women. Japan witnessed a similar trend but based on gender rather than occupational type—women’s employment rates, both regular and non-regular, nosedived while men’s barely budged.

Beyond the labor market, women were also forced to choose between care work expectations and furthering their career. Women are burdened with care work for both nuclear and extended family members. They are expected to prioritize family before their careers, reminiscent of outdated gender perceptions that value women’s reproductive capabilities more than what they can offer as individuals. The time squeeze between work and home life, exacerbated by stifled social care networks, forced thousands of women out of the labor market.

In South Korea, the early childcare relief program distributed coupons to households with children under 7 years old on a per child basis. That said, relief was disbursed specifically to the registered head of household, who then held every liberty to distribute those funds as he—most are men—deemed fit, with no form of accountability. Additional support for displaced care workers was particularly late, with no specific programs available until relatively recently. While welfare policies focused on care recipients are important, it is equally critical for the government to support care providers in the interest of maintaining and enhancing social care networks and workers’ abilities to provide quality care work. Breaking down the gender gap in the labor market shows that 60.8 percent of gender differences in layoffs are unexplained by either industry affiliation or occupation type, thus highlighting that gendered care work in South Korea plays a much more significant role in occupational outcomes than originally expected.

All too often, caregiving has been regarded as so-called “women’s work,” and addressing the damaging impact of such misogyny can actually prove to be a silver lining for government policy.

In Japan, meanwhile, the pandemic can provide the opportunity for the government to tackle the spouse tax deduction policy that disincentivizes women from pursing higher paying jobs, given that it encourages spouses to earn less than JPY 1.5 million ($14 thousand USD) per year in order to be claimed as a dependent for tax purposes. The tax structure reinforces gender roles, as it encourages women to work non-regular jobs and earn just under the threshold income level. Under the current tax system, many women determine that it is more prudent to register as a dependent for the additional tax deduction. In short, the government’s extensive tax codes stifle women’s labor force participation rate and cost the nation millions in GDP.

Additionally, Japan deviates from the childcare-centric narrative—Japanese women fared worse than men more so because of their overrepresentation in non-regular and low-wage jobs, rather than because of childcare obligations. Interestingly, Japanese women in such jobs can access more family amenities and flexibility. As such, the Japanese government should focus on policies to encourage upward mobility in terms of women’s occupational representation, in addition to combatting traditional notions of “women’s work,” which shut women out of said corporate mobility to begin with.

Both countries lag behind their OECD peers significantly in terms of economic gender parity.

Aside from childcare and policy disincentives, there are also the issues of telework and the gender wage gap. For South Korea, employee demand for telework has spiked with more companies looking to integrate telework policies and digital infrastructure. In Japan, however, telework remains unpopular with most employees seeking to return in-person. The gendered wage gap is an additional stumbling block for women seeking to climb the corporate ladder. Both countries lag behind their OECD peers significantly in terms of economic gender parity.

As Korea and Japan look to come out of the pandemic stronger than they actually had been, both countries can benefit from government actions that empower women. Gender-conscious policies can help by encouraging more women to stay in the workforce and have children as well. Insofar as childcare is the main reason behind career interruptions for South Korean women, instituting policies framed around tackling gendered childcare expectations would benefit labor force participation and boost both national GDP and per capita income growth rates. Promoting the actual use paternal leave, rather than simply paying lip service to leave, or incentivizing companies to offer shorter periods of leave at higher rates should also be explored as an alternative model, which Germany has had much success with.

How South Korea and Japan will proceed remains uncertain—but solid first policy steps post-pandemic are more than clear.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Sydney Yi

Program Intern, Asia Program

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more