By Lee Minji
SEOUL, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) -- Some may say that Park So-young, 32, has it all. A graduate of a prestigious Seoul university, Park landed herself a successful sales career at one of Korea's top 10 conglomerates. She occasionally heads abroad for family trips and even managed to tie the knot when many of her peers are putting off marriage amid economic headwinds.
Two years ago, she made a smooth transition to motherhood when she gave birth to a baby girl. Park returned to work after a 90-day paid maternity leave and raises her daughter with the help of her mother-in-law. She is expecting another child later this year.
But this time, Park is seriously worried.
After having her first child, Park gave up a year-long maternity leave, guaranteed under company policy, because she didn't want to miss a chance for a promotion to manager. After having been passed over for the promotion, she wants to take a short maternity leave for her second child as well, but finds herself in a bind because her mother-in-law cannot baby-sit two toddlers by herself.
"I have no plan whatsoever to quit, and my company allows maternity leave of up to 15 months. But everyone knows that it comes with an unspoken career disadvantage," she said, asking to be identified by an alias. "Most women don't return to their position but are transferred to other positions upon their return."
Keeping women like Park in the workforce and bringing stay-at-home moms back to work are major policy agendas for the Park Geun-hye administration, which aims to raise the country's potential growth rate to 4 percent and employment rate to 70 percent under the so-called "474 vision."
An OECD report showed that increasing women's labor force participation rate to match that of men can raise South Korea's annual growth rate by more than 1 percentage point, a significant number for an economy that is forecast to grow 3.4 percent this year, according to central bank estimates.
With many baby boomers retiring and the younger generation delaying marriage or having kids, experts say that encouraging more women to continue to work may be one of the few viable policy cards for the government.
"In a country where cultural exclusiveness is widespread, boosting the number of women in the workforce is a relatively realistic option compared with accepting immigrants," said Park Sung-wook, an economist at the Korea Institute of Finance.
"In that sense, there are basically two solutions for the country's shrinking workforce. One is extending the retirement age, and the other is utilizing the female workforce," he said.
In efforts to encourage more women to work, the government has touted mother-friendly companies and introduced a series of measures such as expanding workplace nurseries and part-time jobs.
The drive also includes the promotion of high-profile working mothers in the public sector, such as Industrial Bank of Korea President Kwon Seon-joo, the country's first female to head a bank. Some private sector firms have caught up, with conglomerates such as Lotte and CJ widening their maternity leave policies and increasing the number of part-time jobs.
At Lotte, a leading distributor, the number of employees using the additional year of maternity leave after a law-mandated 90-day leave soared to 91 percent from 59 percent after the company made the application process automatic. Most large companies give a 90-day leave as stated by law for mothers and offer an additional year off as an option. CJ has adopted a "returnship" program to hire mothers who left work to look after their children.
But despite such policy efforts, experts point out that the reality is harsh in a corporate culture where men are the traditional breadwinners and long working hours are championed. Employees worked an average of 44.6 hours per week in 2013, the highest among advanced economies, according to government data.
"Corporate Korea is accustomed to working long hours in a brick-and-mortar office. This completely goes against the life cycle of children, where much care is needed in their early ages," said Oh Eun-jin, senior research fellow at the Korean Women's Development Institute (KWDI), highlighting the need for flexible and off-site work schedules.
"Since men are considered breadwinners, they don't give up their jobs to take care of their children. With a lack of state support for nurseries, women end up paying all the costs," she said.
Critics say that Park, the saleswoman, is actually one of the lucky ones, because most government policies tend to benefit public servants and employees at large companies where state control is relatively effective.
"The private sector is where the problems exist. Employees at workplaces with less than 30 people are pressured to quit rather than use maternity leaves because companies find it a hassle to hire short-term substitutes," said Oh. Circumstances are even tougher in male-dominated workplaces, such as construction, but relatively better in female-dominant sectors such as publishing.
Chu Myung-ja, the founder and chief of the Korea Original Women's Research Cooperative, is a rare example of a mother who decided to start her own business after four years as a stay-at-home mom. The cooperative, which bids for independent research projects, is run by 20 working moms with master's degrees or doctorates who found it difficult to juggle their careers and children.
Chu, a physics major, worked at a trading firm for roughly nine years before giving birth to her now 6-year-old daughter. Working in a small company, she said she wasn't aware of maternity leave policies and thought it was natural for her to quit.
"Back then, I didn't know there was legally mandated maternity leave. In a small company, hiring a person is not an easy task. In most cases, women feel as if they are sinning when they go on a maternity leave," she said. "In some cases, even if the company wants to give their employees maternity leave, they don't have the financial capacity to do so."
Both Oh and Chu stress that maternity leave should be the most basic policy offered to working mothers in companies of all sizes in all industries. A 2013 report by the KWDI showed that only 66 percent of companies offered maternity leaves of more than 90 days. The figure dipped to 58 percent for workplaces with less than 30 people.
A lack of trustworthy nurseries is another pending issue for working mothers, especially after a series of child abuse incidents by nannies caught on CCTVs that shocked the country in recent weeks.
"It's unfair to wholly blame the government. But still, the government should implement more dramatic and detailed policies that can benefit a majority of working mothers. Otherwise, the gap between mother-friendly workplaces and those that aren't will simply widen," said Oh.
Chu, who founded the cooperative because she had no other option for work, said policy efforts would be futile without social and cultural changes.
"There seems to be no solution for this problem in a society where working moms are held solely responsible for rearing children. Government policies should really go deep into details and cultural issues that should also be solved."
Korean husbands were half as likely to share household chores with their wives compared with their peers in Scandinavian countries, according to a study of 12 countries co-authored by Seoul National University professor Han Gyoung Hae and KWDI research fellow Hong Seungah.
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