Regular FeaturesSpecial Report
Unseen and UnbreakableLooking into glass ceilings of modern society
Paik Ji-eun  |  felizjieunny@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2015.04.01  18:46:45
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ON ONE fine afternoon, in a restaurant in San Francisco, two partners had a passionate discussion on founding an information technology (IT) business in Silicon Valley. These two partners called themselves the Hacker-Hustler team, with Hacker in charge of the technology and Hustler dealing with the businesses. For a few months, they immersed themselves into searching for ideas and looking for sponsors who would make their dreams come true. Since other successful enterprises of Silicon Valley had humble but similar beginnings, Hacker and Hustler were certain that their idea could also bring great success. They hired employees who could work without much payment and thoroughly prepared a presentation for their potential investors. After nine months of arduous efforts, Hacker and Hustler finally established their own enterprise. However, they realized that they came up 400 thousand dollars short of the investment they needed. Did they lack a compelling idea, or was the root of the problem elsewhere?  What they lacked was at least one Y chromosome, considered as the minimum requirement for entrepreneurs to succeed in the Silicon Valley: they were not men.

 

Transparent but mighty

   The concept of the glass ceiling was first introduced in 1986 by The Wall Street Journal. One year later, the terminology was used in an academic article, *Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of Americas Largest Corporations?* written by A.M. Morrison. As the title suggests, the transparent and solid characteristics of glass were metaphorically used to describe the transparent but seemingly unbreakable barrier that blocks women from climbing up the corporate ladder. Now, as society is changing, the meaning of the glass ceiling has changed, as well, to indicate a situation in which women experience inequalities, ranging from negative performance evaluations to barriers blocking advancement, because of gender discrimination.

   Although gender discrimination is less severe than before, such inequality still exists in Korean society, prolonging the glass ceiling and lots of accompanying controversy. According to the research conducted by the World Economic Forum on the global gender gap, South Korea scored 64 out of 100. This fares South Korea 117th out of the 142 countries investigated. Even though the overall ranking has gone up since 2006, it is still comparatively low globally. Canada ranked 19th and United States ranked 20th, while Norway ranked 3rd as one of the countries that first initiated the quota system. Iceland is currently ranked first with a score of 86.

   Even in countries that rank fairly highly in global terms, plenty of gender discrimination persists within important segments of society, such as Silicon Valley in the United States. As explained in the example above, the financial players crucial to the success of Silicon Valley startups implicitly require the presence of men in any new business venture. Teams that only consist of women tend to get downgraded easily. Nevertheless, Silicon Valley is not the only place where this happens. Despite their high level of working potential, women are often unjustly written off as less capable than men.

Moreover, as the demand for employment is increasing, academic discrimination has created another type of glass ceiling. An example lies in Korean companies, which tend to judge people by looking only at educational attainment. Even when someone is hired with a relatively weak academic profile, the person is not likely to be promoted. In one Korean company, the president had announced that only those with high-level education would receive opportunities to be promoted. This meant that those who graduated from community colleges would be ruled out from any kind of chances for advancement. These persistent layers of bias are consistently forming thicker and more rigid glass ceilings.

 

Into the cause of the glass ceiling

   As society progresses and becomes more open, many women have come away from their households and started to compete for employment amongst men. However, despite the existence of many different kinds of glass ceilings, it is women who are most often exposed to such barriers. The biggest difference between women and men is parenthood, as one of the major factors that contribute to the glass ceiling for women is motherhood. After marriage, women have many factors to be concerned about, from pregnancy to childbirth and even childcare, while men typically have fewer sources of distraction from their work. Therefore, it is almost impossible for a woman to focus sufficiently both on children and career, leaving her to stand at the crossroads of being either a mother or a career woman. If a woman struggles to maximize the both opportunities, she will come across the prejudiced concerns, arrowed towards her. This also does not mean that she is free from making a decision. If she chooses motherhood over career, the society will blame her for being irresponsible. If the situation is reversed and a woman chooses career over motherhood, the society will, again, blame her for contributing to low birth rate.

   These tendencies and tradeoffs have emerged in particularly acute form in the countries of East Asia. In case of Korea, the start of discrete gender inequality can be traced to the 14C (year 1392), with the start of the Joseon Dynasty. The founder and first king of Joseon Dynasty, Yi Seong-gye, used *Seong-li-hak*, also called Neo-Confucianism* as the basis of Joseons foundation. With the start of Neo-Confucianism, the rights of women consistently decreased and the tradition of male superiority became all the more entrenched in Korea.

   Such inequalities did not only exist in Joseon but also prevailed throughout different parts of the world until womens rights movements started gaining momentum in the 19th century. Consequently, women have made progress in gaining equal rights and recognition in many fields, and many of them have important roles in the society. Indeed, Park Geun-hye, the President of South Korea, and Hillary Clinton, a former United States Secretary of State are two representative figures that broke the glass ceiling. Yet, the larger struggle continues to achieve higher womens rights. More aggressive movements have brought about transformation in the original meaning of feminism. The exorbitant expression of womens rights resulted in negative perceptions especially among men, and the term radical feminists emerged. As the assertion that patriarchy oppresses women with male supremacy is continuously shouted, some of the public perceives feminism as womens enslavement and exploitation of men in the name of gender equality. Some of these radical feminists have unwittingly hastened the rise of anti-feminism, and as women are getting more advantages that are considered unfair, such as maternity leave, the society emphasizes the concept of anti-feminism. As a result, such feminism has the ironic effect of fueling more prejudice against women, thickening the glass ceiling.

 

Up and over the glass floor

   For the glass ceiling to disappear, society should foremost change its awareness, such as collective sense of gender roles and responsibilities. With fatherhood considered as providing the sustenance of the family, womens roles were naturally cast mainly as housekeeping, which was wrongly evaluated to be less essential than that of men. According to Kim Hyun-mi (Prof. Dept. of Sociology) the patriarchal concepts of men should first be abandoned and the share of housework should be equally distributed, in order to change such consciousness.

   It has not been long since women started in larger numbers to take part in enterprises and government service. Until now, most women in Korea have devoted their lives after marriage to childcare and household work. Although working women until recently were not in the mainstream of society, their emerging professional roles have enabled them to step forward in a changing society. In addition, motherhood all it entails pregnancy, childbirth and childcare should be considered as another important part of the collective social contribution made by women. Employers and co-workers should therefore take their first steps in throwing away negative or demeaning stereotypes. Companies should have generous maternity leave policies and also increase childcare benefits for mothers, so they can take full care of their babies and themselves. One good examples is the Worker - care-er model carried out in Norway, in which both males and females may switch back and forth from a worker to care-er as their personal circumstances change.

   Since changing public awareness often takes a long time to accomplish and can seem almost unrealistic, it is also the governments role to break through the glass ceiling. Yet another harsh difficulty for career women is the risk of being exposed to sexual harassment or molestation. The law of Korea is extremely benign to those who are accused of such harassment, which is why the government should strengthen the punishment for offenders. The government should also consider enacting a gender quota system**, following the lead of several European countries that have put forward mandates on the percentage of women working in corporations and the government.

*                 *                 *

As the Korean society develops, many inequalities are slowly vanishing. Yet, much discrimination still needs to disappear, and the glass ceiling needs to give way. Regardless of ones true abilities, the glass ceiling imposes barriers upon individuals based solely on ones background and innate features. Although the term was first used to indicate a source of inequity for women, this phenomenon has now become a worldwide issue, affecting the men as well. The glass ceiling should no long be the transparent barrier to anyone that does not shatter. Therefore, it is time for the society, as a whole, to build upon its awareness and break through the unseen but still evident obstacle.

 

*Neo Confucianism: Chinese philosophy of moral and ethical theory influenced by Confucius and Confucianism dating back to of the Tang Dynasty

 

**Gender quota system: a system set by the government, which claims that every enterprise should have a certain percentage of women to ensure an appropriate the gender balance

 

 

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