Men no longer outnumber women in Korea for the first time since statistics began in 1960, suggesting that the traditional preference of parents for boys over girls has come to an end. Worldwide, women slightly outnumber men, but Korea has just achieved parity.
Statistics Korea on Thursday said there are 25.08 million women out of a total population of 50.2 million. The proportion of women in the total population has been increasing steadily from 49.4 percent in 1970 to 49.7 percent in 1990. It now stands at 50 percent and is expected to exceed that of men in 2015.
The main reason is changing attitudes. Even until the early 2000s, preference for boys was still evident with 110.2 baby boys born for every 100 baby girls.
But the patriarchal family registration system was abolished in 2005, bringing about a major change in public attitudes toward gender equality. This led to 105.7 baby boys being born per 100 baby girls, and by now a growing number of young Korean couples prefer to have baby girls.
◆ Women's Status Growing
The changes are becoming evident in all corners of Korean society, most notably in education. In 2009 for the first time more women than men went to university. Since then, the gap has widened, with the university entrance rate for women at 74.3 percent this year and for men at 68.6 percent.
The growing numbers of well-educated women also boosted their status in society. In 2000, only 18.9 percent of those who passed the notoriously difficult state bar exam were women, but last year the proportion was 41.7 percent. The number of female public servants has also increased to account for 42.7 percent last year.
The Ministry of Security and Public Administration on Thursday said that at this rate women will account for 50.1 percent of public servants by 2015.
◆ Glass Ceiling Remains
But obstacles remain. Women in Korea are among the most educated in the world, but only 49.9 percent of them are employed, one of the lowest ratios in the OECD.
And although more women than men go to university, the so-called economic participation rate of women still falls 23.4 percentage points behind that of men (73.3 percent). This means many women are not putting their skills to use.
A lack of contacts and access to networks of professionals are blamed for this trend. Many women who are employed after university also end up quitting their jobs in their 30s to have children, showing just how difficult it remains to work and raise children at the same time.
◆ 'Mommy Trap'
Experts around the world say more women need to enter the workforce and contribute their expertise for the sake of their country's growth. The OECD in a recent report studying gender equality said Korea's GDP will grow 2.5 percent by 2030 if the present level of female participation in the workforce persists but 3 percent if the gender gap in the workforce shrinks 50 percent, and 3.4 percent if the gap is eliminated completely.
"We need to come up with measures so that women do not get trapped in the 'mommy trap' where they are too bogged down by child rearing to return to work after childbirth," said Joo Jae-sam at the Korea Women’s Development Institute.
Other experts say more women need to rise to higher positions in Korean companies. "Businesses need to get rid of the glass ceiling so that more women can get to more senior positions and we need more female lawmakers and high-ranking government officials," said Park Ran-sook at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.