1. Gender Inequality in South Korea: Rationalization
through the Lens of System Justification Theory
By Peter Machielse
2. 1 Introduction
The South Korean labor market is characterized by a huge gender inequality (Rudolf & Cho,
2011). South Korea like other Confucian countries in Asia is a country where the role of
woman in society is marginal. Economic development has improved South Korea socially and
politically regarding gender equitable opportunities, but this has not translated fully into
employment and family structure (Chun, Khang, Kim & Cho, 2008). This paper primarily
focuses on the gender inequality in South Korea.
As Lee (2009) shows us, a wide palette of statistics that woman inequality is still present in
South Korea. Although little progress is made, the inequality is still lacking behind compared
to many western countries (Gaye, Klugman, Kovacevic, Twigg & Zambrano, 2010). The IMF
reforms due to the financial crisis during the end of the 90s forced South Korea to dismantle
their permanent employment system which ensured man as main breadwinner (Kim & Voos,
2007) and modernized East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea also woman found
their ways to the universities but even when they are equally skilled, they are faced with their
traditional roles (Cong, 2008).
When discussing gender inequality, statistical obstacles arise. The different methodologies
show different results, scholars disagree and therefore it is hard to rely on a single method
(Gaye, et al 2010). South Korea is ranked as number 20 in the Gender Inequality Index 1, but
is ranked as 104 in the Global Gender Gap.2 Because of the wide range of ratings, results are
discussed in the media and as a result the value of surveys and methods will decrease. 3
However this paper shows the main results that can be drawn from the different indexes.
UN Human Developement Report 2010 Gender Inequality Index
The Global Gender Gap Index 2010 rankings: Comparisons with 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006
3. Although the problems of measuring gender inequality are covered in this paper, a full
discussion is beyond the scope of this text. This text rather focuses on the way the social
problems are justified by the system that caused them. Social justification theory is rooted in
cognitive dissonance theory and focuses on the way the society is rationalizing social
problems. Gender inequality is not a new phenomenon in South Korea. Rooted in NeoConfucian thought, gender inequality has been common for years. Since the 70s and
especially after the democratization during the 90s organized attempts were made to fight for
gender equality (e.g. family law that was finally accepted in 2005) (Nam, 2010).
This research does not utilize empirical data generated by the researcher. It rather suggests
explanation from different sources that give support to the way that social problems are
justified in the system. Therefore the central question in this paper is formulated as followed:
“What are the main arguments that rationalize gender inequality South Korea?”
2 Theoretical backgrounds
Before elaborating on the theoretical background of this paper we need a definition of a social
issue itself. Eitzen’s (2009) provides us the following definition of a social problem: “Social
problems are societal induced conditions that harms any segment of the population. Social
problems are also related to acts and conditions that violate the norms and values found in
This definition shows us that we are talking about a social problem when it harms a segment
of the society. In the case of gender inequality on the South Korean labor market we can see
that the monthly average wages between male and female are wide (Rudolf & Cho, 2011).
The average monthly wage of a female is only 63 % of a male wage, which can be seen as
4. material harm (Lee, 2009). Although the perception and amount of “harm” experienced by
gender inequality can differ among European and East Asian woman, gender inequality in
general has a negative effect on the psychological well being of woman (psychological harm)
(Kinias & Kim, 2011). Therefore it can be argued that gender inequality can be considered as
a social problem.
2.1 System Justification Theory
According to Jost and Hunyady (2002) system justification theory is most influenced by
cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance is described by Festinger (1957) as a
misbalance between an actors’s believes and the way the person acts. People try to rationalize
their behavior in order to overcome the misbalance. Therefore two hypotheses were made.
First, “the existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the
person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance”. Second, “when dissonance is
present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and
information, which would likely increase the consonance” (Festinger, 1957 p 3). Although the
system justification theory is influence by cognitive dissonance theory, three main differences
can be catalyzed. First, cognitive dissonance theory is often regarded as an “ego justice”
theory and will rather emphasize the individual. Second, is that the cognitive dissonance
theory assumes that people should be personal responsible in order to justify it. Third,
cognitive dissonance theory stresses cognitive consistency (Jost & Hunyady, 2002).
Three main justification tendencies or motives can be distinguished that can conflict that can
conflict or contradict for members of disadvantaged groups: ego justification, group
justification and system justification (Jost & Banaji, 1994). First, ego justification maintains a
good self image and makes people feel valid, justified and legitimate as an individual. Second,
group justification focuses on social identity theory and arising from this the development and
5. maintenance of one’s group and justify the behavior of its members. Third, system
justification concerns social and psychological needs to keep the status quo with legitimacy
and consider it as good, fair, natural, desirable and inevitable (Jost, Banaji & Nosek, 2004).
In most capitalistic countries wide gap of economic and social inequalities exist. Even though
the capitalist thought is spreading across the globe, capitalist countries don’t suffer from a
lack of legitimacy or instability (Jost & Hunyady, 2002). According to Jost & Hunyady (2002)
scholars mention the role of ideology as justifier of the system. “Social scientists typically
point to the role of ideology in maintaining popular support for the system by explaining,
justifying, and rationalizing inequality in such a way that people are seen as deserving the
outcomes and treatment they receive” (Jost & Hunyady, 2002 p 112).
2.2 Neo Confucianism
During the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, the country adopted a Western
constitution that ensures in an equal treatment between genders. Article 11:1 of the Korean
constitution indicates: “All citizens shall be equal before the law, and there shall be no
discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural Life on account of sex, religion or
social status”. 4 However a constitution alone cannot change cultural believes or social
behavior. Roots of gender inequality can be found hundreds of years ago when the Choson
Dynasty (1392-1910) adopted Neo-Confucianism as the state’s ideology. During the 17
century the Choson Dynasty restructured family organization, like marriages and kinship
practices, but also in the establishing of strict gender roles. Neo-Confusianism in contrast to a
western constitution rather emphasizes inequality than equality. Not only there is a difference
between gender, also social classes and generations are rather described as unequal (Cho,
1998). Confusion values are still dominant in the South Korean labor market. As a result those
The Constitution of the Republic of Korea
6. values keep the woman subordinate in social and economical perspectives (Chun et al. 2008).
Confucianism articulates ideas about self-cultivation, regulation of the family, social civility,
moral education, ethical relations between persons, the wellbeing of the people, governance of
the state, and universal peace. It has shaped the ideas, norms, and values that underlie the
moral fabric of East Asian societies for many centuries and continues to do so up to the
present day (Zhao & Biesta, 2011 p 9).
3 Statistics and measurement problems
This chapter covers the results of South Korea gender inequality from the most common used
methods (Chun et al, 2008). It shows the different outcomes and discusses briefly the
difference among them. This chapter also shows some specific statistics regarding inequality
on the labor market provided by the South Korean government.
3.1 Inter sexes labor market comparison
The woman’s labor market participation increased from 41.9 % in 1985 to 50.0 % in 2008.
The male’s participation in comparison increased from 72, 8 % in 1985 to 78,5 % in 2008.
Notable fact in the woman’s participation is an “M shaped line graph”. Between 25 and 29 the
participation reaches its peak with a 69, 3 % participation and this declined to 53, 3 % for the
ages 30-34. Within the range of 40-44 years old, the woman’s participation on the labor
market reached its “second” peak at 65, 9 % (2008 measures).5 An inequality can be when the
average wages are examined. The average woman’s wage increased from 2000 to 2007 up to
a monthly average of ₩ 1.839.000, but this is still only 63,0 % of the male average on a
monthly base (slightly depending on educational achievement).6
National Statistical Office (2008), Annual Report on the Economically Active Population Survey
Ministry of Labor (2007), Survey Report on Wage Structure, Survey Report on Occupational Wage Survey
7. Woman’s participation in local and central government (higher than level 5) is low, but a
slight increase can be noticed. Participation in the central government increased from 4, 8 %
in 2001 to 10, 0 % in 2007. In the local government the growth is less spectacular, from 5, 3 %
in 2001 to 7, 1 % in 2007 7 8 (Lee, 2009).
3.2 The use of different methods to measure gender inequality
In the 1995 Human Development Report two main measure methods of gender inequality
were launched. The Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment
Measure GEM)(Gaye et al 2010). The GDI covers an overall assessment of well being, which
covers measures of health, education and income. The GEM was launched as a
complementary measure of the GDI and measures gender inequality in terms of economic and
political power. The three dimensions included are: “First, control over economic resources,
measured by men and women’s earned income. Second, economic participation and decision
making, measured by women and men’s share of administrative, professional, managerial,
and technical positions. Third, political participation and decision making, measured by male
and female shares of parliamentary seats” (Gaye et al, 2010 p 8). The GEM represent the level
of economic autonomy and political participation in society and the GDI is an index of life
expectancy, knowledge and a decent standard of living (Chun et al 2008; Lee, 2009). For an
overview of variables 9 . Since people were conducting research along the GDI and GEM
methods, criticism occurred. Discussing the arguments in beyond the scope of this paper (for
example the strong correlation between GPD and gender equality), but in 2010 a new
methodology was launched to meet the critics (Gaye, 2010). The GII focuses on three
dimensions: empowerment, economic activity and reproductive health. The GII shows the
Ministry of Government Administration (2008), Yearbook of Ministry of Government Administration.
Ministry of Public Administration and Security (2008), Civil Service Commission.
8. loss in human development due to inequality between female and male achievements in these
dimensions (Gaye et al., 2010 p 8).
As mentioned earlier an in depth study of the different outcomes on the three different
methods is beyond the scope of this paper, but the outcomes can reveal the general impression
of the South Korean case. When looking at the GII index (2008 values), South Korea is
ranked as number 20 between Austria (19) and Portugal (21)10. When looking at the 2009
GEM, South Korea is ranked as 61 out of 109 between the Russian Federation (60) and
Vietnam (62) 11 . The GDI (2007/2008) South Korea is ranked as number 26 out of 159,
between Slovenia (25) and Cyprus (27)12. In South Korea the low GEM index was therefore
often used by lobby groups to force the government to take actions against the absence of
woman in the political and economical sector (Gaye et al., 2010). The Global Gender Gap
places South Korea at place 104 out of 134, between United Arab Emirates (103) and Kuwait
4 Justification of labor market inequality
Hoffman (1995) states that traditional gender opposition theory does not cover the full
explanation of gender inequality in the specific South Korean case. Many scholars
underestimate the role of the “informal” power women hold and therefore the image of South
Korean women in society still holds descriptions as powerless and subordination. Previous
research did not examine the psychological dimensions of woman experience like
achievement oriented personalities. These underlying concepts were underestimated in
explaining the male dominance.
UN Human Developement Report 2010 Gender Inequality Index
Human Developement 2009 Gender Empowerment Measure
Human Developement 2007 / 2008 Gender-related Developement Index
The Global Gender Gap Index 2010 rankings: Comparisons with 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006
9. Cook (2003) argues that the role of the woman in building the family is an important duty for
Korean woman. According to (Berik, 2009) woman in Korea do not invest in careers, because
of their home responsibilities. South Korea has with a weekly 46, 6 hours the highest amount
of working hours among the OECD countries. Therefore family friendly jobs are hard to
obtain and this results in a low participation on the labor market (Rudolf & Cho, 2011).
Kwon (1996) 14 states that most of the research on gender inequality is conducted too
simplistic. Cross country research ignores the complex relation between genders that exist for
generations and ignoring those characteristics is misleading. Women prefer to stay away from
the labor market. Women value intangible contribution to family and society more and
woman are giving even more value to raise their kids properly. When comparing youth crime
rates in South Korea and the U.S. the “intangible” input will be “tangible”, because U.S. rates
are much higher due to bad marriages and family problems.
In order to understand male female relations in Korea, research should not focus on the
typical western pattern of gender inequality (Hoffman, 1995). According to Hoffman (1995)
the common used gender opposition theory focuses too much on the displacing of
dichotomized discourse of gender” (Hekman, 1990 p 142). According to Hoffman (1995) this
view in the South Korean case provides an incomplete. Inner psychological dimensions of
woman experiences are ignored. "Many Korean women have developed high achievementoriented personalities despite their Obedient and self-sacrificing' image" Cho (1987 p 53).
Hoffman (1995) also argues that women are the ones that maintain the old values to protect
the society from “low morality” from the Western world. The male can be the leading in
figure in public, but they are absolutely in control over family affairs.
10. The main argument made by Hoffman (1995) is that Western gender inequality thinking
focuses on the removal of roles distinctions in order to achieve “principled equality”. This
view ignores the existence of different psychological experiences among genders. In the
South Korean case (and probably other countries like Japan “we find an official cultural
ideology that is strongly gender differentiated, with "public" and "domestic" domains that are
comparatively much more clearly marked as male and female than in the United States, there
exists an underlying cultural psychology that stresses a fundamental intimacy between men
and women in which selves as well as gender are categorically blurred or identified with one
another.” (Hoffman, 1995 p 131).
When comparing the gender among the U.S. and South Korea (but probably among other
Asian and Western countries) it is important to distinguish the differences between the official
cultural ideology of gender differences and gender roles and in contrast the cultural practice
that is shaped by cultural psychologies, conceptualizations of self and philosophies of natural
or cosmic order. When looking at the “surface” it looks as if South Korean woman are treated
unequal, and are powerless. U.S. woman in contrast look very free, equal and powerful on the
“surface”. Under the surface the reality of Korean cultural psychology recognizes a certain
“non-conflictual” identity that resulted in a unity of sexes and in the U.S. sexes rather can be
regarded as they are in a “play for power” (Hoffman, 1995).
5 Discussion and conclusion
The research shows that scholars agree that there is a gender inequality on the South Korean
labor market. The results of the most common used gender inequality measuring
methodologies (GII, GEM, GDI & GGG) can provide us an impression, but because of the
ambiguity among the results, scholars can easily defend their opinions. Results vary from rank
20 in the GII to rank 104 in the GGG index. The indexes also show that the inequality on
11. South Korean gender market is decreasing (for example by IMF reforms), but only slow
progress was made and it is still lacking behind when the results are compared with most
During this paper it is argued that there is a gender inequality and this paper rather focuses on
the social justification of that social problem instead of determine how big the problem really
is. Maybe this makes it even more interesting to look at arguments that are not supported by
hard (among scholars) widely accepted statistics.
System justification theory mainly focuses on how people are rationalizing the social problem.
Striking was that arguments for justifying the system were mainly based on the old cultural
traditions in the Korean society. Many scholars underestimate the intangible psychological
experiences of woman in Korean society and the role they play in the parts of society that are
not covered in the statistics. The way how the gender inequality was rationalized was first
based on the different perspectives on gender inequality. Western views rather regard
societies as equal by making “principle” equality among the different sexes. Koreans rather
focus on the “psychological” equality, while accepting that there is a difference between sexes.
Second this result in a situation where the Western women are equal on the surface, but in fact
are in rival of power with males and in contrast Korean women look unequal on the surface
but in fact achieve a unity of sexes. This explanation fits the description of a Neo Confucian
philosophy that justifies differences in contrast to a Western society where the main doctrine
depends on equality among people.
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Links Gender indexes