Gender-related discrimination in the Japanese and South Korean workforce

A comparative analysis of women’s access to productive and financial resources

Florian Paulsen, National Chengchi University [About | Email]

Volume 19, Issue 3 (Discussion paper 4 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 24 December 2019.


The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks the high-income East Asian countries Japan and the Republic of South Korea low for gender equality. In this article, I attempt to highlight similarities and differences to be considered in order to formulate adequate strategies to counteract persistent gender bias and inequality in the labour force. Based on The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), my findings suggest that it is not necessarily due to the absence of political courage that little progress can be seen, but due to synergistic effects of traditional gender roles with a lack of corporate compliance working against empowerment. Additionally, modern gender role aspirations have certainly emerged over time, but an attitudinal rollback permeates society as a matter of the global economic slowdown.

Keywords: Japan, Korea, women in the workforce, gender bias.


The World Bank Group estimates that gender inequality could lead to losses in income and wealth of approximately 23,620 US dollars per person globally, with the largest amount in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (Wodon & de la Brière, 2018, p. 19). The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) by the OECD (2019a) ranks the high-income East Asian countries Japan and the Republic of South Korea (hereafter Korea) lowly for gender equality. Although Japan and Korea signed the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1980 and 1983, respectively (United Nations Treaty Collection, 2019), gender inequalities persist in both countries’ social and economic spheres: with the OECD median gender wage gap at 13.8 percent between 2014 and 2017, Korea ranks highest with 34.6 percent, and Japan comes third with 24.5 percent (OECD Data, 2018). Beyond the wage gap, female labour force participation itself appears bleak, too. The participation rate of women with more than 4 years of college education is 57.1 percent in South Korea, also the lowest among all OECD countries (Cho & Kwon, 2010, p. 113). In Japan, if the female employment rate rose to that of their male counterparts, the workforce could increase by 7.1 million, lifting the GDP by up to 12.5 percent (Matsui, Suzuki, Tatebe & Akiba, 2014, p. 5). If women are highly educated and adding them to the workforce would generate promising economic gains, the question arises as to why little progress has been made in improving labour issues related to gender.

This paper assesses women’s access to productive and financial resources in Japan and Korea, in an attempt to highlight similarities and differences to be considered in order to formulate adequate strategies to counteract work-related gender inequality at the workplace to boost inclusive growth. The starting point for the research is The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) by the OECD (2019a), from which I extracted the determinants of gender inequality in access to productive and financial resources. Indicators that were identified as discriminatory by the OECD (2019a) are presented in Table 1 in the appendix. Overall, it can be seen that men and women are to the greatest extent equal before the law. Nonetheless, ‘discriminatory customary, religious, or traditional practices’, that is, structural and attitudinal discrimination towards women, seem to perpetuate gender inequality. I narrow down my focus to gender values embedded in work policies and practices. First, I expand on political commitments and shed light on entrenched societal norms and traditional gender roles. My findings point towards synergistic effects of traditional gender roles and a lack of corporate compliance working against empowerment. Finally, I will highlight the important role of the government in challenging gender stereotypes to initiate the process of transformation towards gender equality and inclusive growth.

Gender-related discrimination in the Japanese and South Korean workforce

Political commitments to eliminate gender inequality have fallen short of effectiveness due to corporate noncompliance and weak enforcement. Pledged by the liberal Korea Democratic Party, the 2006 Affirmative Action Act was implemented to increase female employment by eradicating gender-discriminatory employment practices in public and private organisations: within-industry benchmarks for female labour shares were determined, and companies falling below are required to submit implementation plans; however, this was compromised after the elections by governmental interactions with the private sector (Cho & Kwon, 2010). The general characteristics of South Korea’s industrial structure, that has long been dominated by Korean business conglomerates called chaebols, merely led to a reshuffle of the existingindustry classification system to meet within-industry benchmarks and avoid affirmative action that was regarded as serious regulation of personnel management. For instance, Korean Air Lines and Asiana Air Lines were granted their own ‘Air Passenger Transportation Industry’ category instead of remaining within the more general ‘Transportation Industry’ which has a generally high within-industry share of female employees—benchmarks that could not be met by the airlines (Cho & Kwon, 2010, p. 122). Despite an amendment in 2008, the act remained unsuccessful for its incapability to address pre-existing societal bias (Cho, Cho & Song, 2010). Therefore, the Affirmative Action Act has fallen short of effectiveness due to the lack of businesses’ intrinsic motivation to counteract gender discrimination and its “weak design to merely encourage companies to voluntarily engage in self-diagnosis” (Cho & Kwon, 2010, p. 116).

Japan also realised early legal changes to promote women’s participation in the labour force, such as the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law or the Childcare Leave Act in 1992, but none has proved effective due to persistent conservative norms and gender roles (Hasunuma, 2015). Similar to Korea, the Japanese government has incrementally set out a variety of institutional reforms regarding female labour participation. However, reforms were largely driven by external forces and not by ambitions of the private sector to create women-friendly jobs. The ‘outside pressure’, coined gender gaiatsu by Hasanuma (2015), has come from international actors such as the United Nations, the OECD, or the World Bank. Subsequently, female labour participation became key not only to restoring Japan’s international reputation but also to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s economic revival strategy that particularly targets women: womenomics (Matsui et al., 2014; Hasunuma, 2015). One of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s goals regarding women’s labour issues is to reach 30 percent female representation in a variety of domains within the Japanese society by 2020 (Matsui et al., 2014, p. 3). In the face of the rapidly ageing Japanese society and acute labour shortages in the future, adopting womenomics may indeed induce more gender-equal and inclusive growth. But just like in Korea, public policy alone cannot guide corporate employment practice, as gender-discriminatory elements embedded in societal norms have to change first in order to translate a new societal mindset into synergies between public and private stakeholders (Cho, Cho & Song, 2010; Cho & Kwon, 2010; Matsui et al., 2014). Therefore, it is not necessarily due to the absence of political courage that little progress can be seen, but due to the lack of corporate compliance reflecting the continuity of conservative norms and deeply entrenched discriminatory practices that restrict women’s access to productive and financial resources in Korea and Japan (Grubb, Lee & Tergist, 2007; Cho & Kwon, 2010).

Women make up most irregular workforces in Korea and Japan, where market duality reinforces gender inequality and, thus, leads to job insecurity and forfeited social benefits. An inquiry into the Gender, Institutions, and Development Database (GID-DB) by the OECD (2019b)1 corroborates the fact that only little progress has been made: female labour force participation in Korea was at 50.2 percent at the time of the Affirmative Action Act in 2006, rising to only 52.1 ten years later. In the same time span, Japan recorded similar numbers of female labour force participation with a 2 percentage point increase from 48.4 to 50.4 percent. Falling short of effectiveness, the 2006 Affirmative Action Act may have led to an underwhelming increase in overall female labour in Korea; however, work arrangements are often temporal, irregular, and in nonstandard jobs (Chun, 2007; Grubb, Lee, & Tergist, 2007). According to the GID-DB (OECD, 2019b)2, the share of Korean women working part-time rose from 6.5 percent in 1990 to 16.5 percent in 2016 (but only from 3.1 to 6.8 percent for men); in Japan, the share of women working part-time was initially higher with 25.1 percent in 1990, and increased to 37.1 percent in 2016 (but only from 5.9 percent in 1990 to 11.9 percent for men). There is a general trend of increasing part-time work across genders in both countries. However, the trend of this more complex market duality with greater shares of women working part-time is problematic in spite of higher overall female labour participation. Women work the same or more amounts than standard full-time employees, thus, the institutionalisation of gender-based discrimination and the gender division of labour entail distinctly lower financial and social benefits for women (Broadbent, 2003). As Schauer (2010) put it: “Labour market duality has created a revolving door for temporary workers, with little opportunity to attain permanent employment” (p. 14). In contrast to Japan, Korea addressed the issue and enhanced the pension rights of divorced women by relaxing the minimum eligibility criteria for the National Pension Scheme from 20 years to 10 years’ contribution for non-standard female workers (Yun, 2005, cit. in Kim, 2008, p. 117). Moreover, the labour law was amended in 2007 to incentivise the conversion of non-regular workers to regular employees by contracting fixed-term workers to a maximum of two years (Kinoshita & Guo, 2015, p. 7). Also, this open-ended contracting practice targets the entire workforce regardless of gender and tackles inequality in terms of labour distribution; that is, adapting to global changes that require flexibility in the labour market without jeopardising people’s income. Effectively, the share of Korean women in the regular labour force rose to almost 40 percent in 2010 (Kinoshita & Guo, 2015, p. 7).

Regardless of more or less effective structural change, what remains in place and furthermore impedes gender inclusiveness is the system in which eligibility for promotion is conferred upon the seniority principle, in both Japan and Korea. A pronounced seniority principle excludes women from higher career positions in that they are not given equal opportunities of investment in their human capital over a long-term career at one company (Schoppa, 2006; Steinberg & Nakane, 2012). Hwang (2003) elucidates the Korean seniority principle by the insider-outsider theory of employment. He highlights how workers are compensated based upon personal characteristics, such as age and rank, mainly in large insider labour markets of the chaebols, whereas the wage system in small businesses on the outsider labour market is determined more equally by the value of the labour provided. With women representing more than 3 percent of top chaebol executives for the first time in 2018, change may come about gently; however, it becomes clear that women still face a severe glass ceiling between them and the executive floor, in Korea and Japan alike (Seo, 2018; Matsui et al., 2014). For instance, the proportion of women among managers in 2018 was only about 10.5 and 13 percent for Korea and Japan, respectively, while it ranged much higher from 36.2 percent in the United Kingdom to 40.5 percent in the United States (OECD, 2019a; Table 1, Appendix). The seniority principle and gender inequality in workplace authority are even more pronounced in Japan on account of the persistent lifetime employment system, a distinctive legal characteristic of Japan’s labour law, which was formerly set out to guarantee families with a stable income of the ‘male breadwinner’ and provide companies with a secure and loyal workforce (Wright, Baxter & Birkelund,, 1995; Schoppa, 2006). However, to cope with stagnant growth, Japanese companies have increased the use of non-regular employment while restricting reconfigurations in general employment practices, ultimately protecting regular male core employees (Nakata & Miyazaki, 2007). Women’s limited access to the ‘old boy’s network’ and promotion opportunities often restricts them to non-career positions and part-time work in the low-paid service sector. With double the share of women working part-time in Japan than in Korea, reforming the Japanese lifetime employment system should be a major concern for policymakers to break with discriminatory practices and incentivise female labour intake. In the wake of globalisation and its forces towards labour flexibility and talent circulation, Korea has already taken incremental steps in reforming its labour law, but Matsui et al. (2014) believe that these forces have also prompted Japanese firms to open up and rethink traditional and discriminatory employment practices.

However, traditional gender roles can either transform through modern attitudes, but they can also be reinforced in the face of lacking empowerment, slow-paced progress, and the global economic slowdown. A shift in mentality takes time and may need to be steered by policies. From a societal standpoint, Japanese and Korean women have continuously been discriminated against in re-entering the labour market and typically cast in the role of housewives after marriage or childbirth, either on account of consolidated sociocultural family constructs embedded in Confucian tradition (Cho & Kwon, 2010), or due to incentives like tax distortions in the form of pension claims of dependent low-income housewives in Japan (Schoppa, 2010; Matsui et. al, 2014). While modern gender role aspirations have certainly emerged over time, a rollback permeates society as a matter of economics (Schoppa, 2006; Cho & Kwon, 2010; Hasunuma, 2015). The Asian financial crisis ended job security and salarymen and -women’s stable incomes in Japan and Korea alike, and increased competition among genders; as of recently, sluggish growth has forced Korean chaebols to hire less personnel and left many Koreans with economic insecurity, giving scope to a backlash and revival of traditional gender roles that once proved to be socially acceptable during the years of economic growth (Steger, 2016). With the return of the ‘Chaebol Republic’ (Kalinowski, 2009), corporate influence on governmental policy may not work in favour of gender parity in Korea. Similarly, in Japan, more than a third of women have recently held favourable attitudes towards being housewives and mothers rather than chasing after a career they are denied in the first place (Hasunuma, 2015, p.99). Endo (2018) traces this back to “the strict economic realities of post-bubble Japan… seemingly [leading] many young women to become more ‘aggressive’ in securing their livelihood by way of a traditional marriage rather than contend with the highly gender encouraged unequal and increasingly de-regulated labour market” (p. 16).

If societal norms continue to determine gender-discriminatory practices in the labour market, enhanced governmental commitment presents an important transformative factor in that it can raise institutional awareness and induce affirmative action to steer society toward more inclusiveness and counteract further institutionalisation of gender bias. For the sake of productivity growth and sustained economic performance in the ageing societies of Japan and Korea, educated women should be able to join the labour force in a manner that equally meets their career aspirations. Many Korean and Japanese women are highly educated but economically inactive, thus unable to actualise their return on education on account of gender bias, such as employers’ dismissal of married women (Broadbent, 2003; Cho et al., 2010; Kinoshita & Guo, 2015). By adjusting existing laws and unveiling new policies, the Japanese and Korean governments can generate gender-inclusive synergies in the working world with higher bargaining power for women, and give a new impetus to rethinking social norms and constructs.

Tackling gender bias in the workforce

Firstly, labour laws targeting men and women should be further amended and implemented effectively. The necessity of change may have been ignored by Japan for too long, and weak top-down provisions like the Korean Affirmative Action Act may bring little advancements due to institutional noncompliance; however, propelling institutional and societal change is necessary and can come at a low fiscal burden. In tandem with incentives such as tax reforms and social insurance adjustments to cover the diversity of men’s and women’s career aspirations, a set of mandatory provisions such as quota can generate female voice and visibility, create female role models in the business world, and foster coalitions between like-minded men and women as agents of gender-inclusiveness.

Secondly, both Korean and Japanese jurisdictions mandate parental leave, of which the large share falls under the category of paid maternity leave (OECD, 2019a; Table 1, Appendix), leaving room for improvement towards gender parity in reproductive labour. Day-care capacity for children has increased in Japan since 2010 but remains a key performance indicator of the womenomics agenda aiming to supply more childcare for 22,741 waitlisted children as of April 2013 and have 55 percent of women returning to work after birth in 2020 (Matsui et al., 2014, p.7). In Korea, workplaces with more than 500 employees or more than 300 female employees must provide childcare services or compensate for it; however, compliance rates were at only 43.2 percent as of 2008, due to missing penalty mechanisms (Korea Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, 2008, cit. in Cho & Kwon, 2010, p. 115). In 2000, neither Japan nor Korea offered childbirth leave entitlements exclusively to fathers. As of 2014, the number of weeks of exclusive paid paternal leave in Japan and Korea was 52, Japan excelling with a 58.4 percent wage replacement rate over 31 percent in Korea; however, less than 5 percent of Korean working fathers took any kind of leave (Yoon, 2017, p. 230f). Despite having set out corrective measures, the conservatively gendered division of labour remains in place. Considering slowly changing gender roles, reproductive labour should receive elevated state support and be incrementally increased in form of upgraded paid paternal leave—if shared with the mother—in order not only to improve gender equality at the workplace, but also to extend social benefits, such as pension credits, to the currently disadvantaged irregular female workforce. Studies by the World Bank (2019) find that no country in East Asia provides pension credits for childrearing, leading to significant income losses during retirement for women. With more regular jobs for both men and women, gender-equal wage replacement rates during childcare and retirement would give scope to improved socioeconomic gender equity, and secure higher levels of overall income equality in the society.

Thirdly, in face of the ageing populations of Korea and Japan, and the shift towards mature and labour-intensive service sectors, the concept of ‘wage-worthy labour’ has to be revaluated in order to lift women out of the productivity trap. Not long ago, South Koreans often viewed women’s work as a secondary income, therefore neglecting equal remuneration (Hwang 2003). In 2018, time spent on unpaid work, such as housework or care for family members (children, elderly), amounted to more than 220 minutes per day for Japanese and Korean women, and to less than 50 for men, who engaged instead in 60 percent more time of paid work than women (OECD, 2019b).3 Persistent societal norms and the aforementioned rollback may impede drastic near-term redistribution of paid and unpaid labour, but rapidly changing demographics will sooner or later edge the public and private sector in both societies into revaluating the concept of labour, especially in Japan. Additionally, the current law mandates equal remuneration for work of equal value (OECD, 2019a; Table 1, Appendix). However, implementation falls short of effectiveness but needs to be reconsidered in light of the shrinking labour force and maturing labour-intensive service sectors, such as elderly care, which will experience an increasing demand to be dealt with. With Korea having been able to redistribute labour somehow more equally among genders, Japan will have to follow up. Also, the gender pay gap must be narrowed and remuneration of unpaid work considered on account of changing labour environments and increasing demand for labour with pronounced qualitative value.


A version of this paper was submitted as coursework at National Chengchi University, Taipei. The author would like to thank Professor Syaru Shirley Lin for her comments.


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Table 1: Female Access to Productive and Financial Resources in Japan & Korea
Country Japan Korea Notes
SIGI score 0.296 0.33
Secure Access to Land / Non-Land Assets Q10 discriminatory customary, religious or traditional practices or laws Yes Yes - practice: inheritance, son bias
Workplace Rights Q2 Permission to choose a profession: discriminatory customary, religious or traditional practices or laws Yes No - dual-track career paths
Q9 Law mandates equal remuneration for work of equal value Yes Yes - yet, the gender pay gap persists
The law mandates non-discrimination on the basis of sex in employment Yes Yes - equal before the law, but unequal employment and promotion opportunities
The law mandates paid parental leave Yes Yes indicated: paid parental + maternity leave
Attitudes Population holding discriminatory views towards working women 4% 6% - reflects persistent gender inequality / societal norms
Practice Proportion of women among managers 13% 10.5% - glass ceiling, seniority principle

Note: In the domain of access to productive and financial resources, the SIGI score of Japan and Korea is 0.296 and 0.33, respectively, with 0 indicating total gender equality and 1 indicating total gender inequality (OECD, 2019a).

About the Author

Florian Paulsen is a student in the International Master's Program in Asia Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan, and a recipient of the MOE Taiwan Scholarship and a scholarship of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). His research interests focus on regionalisation and developmental processes in the Asia-Pacific, with specific emphasis on the interrelationships between economic activity and societal change in East and Southeast Asia.

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Article copyright Florian Paulsen.

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