The one rule that could benefit all working women


It took a female President and lack of breeding to bring it on, but South Korea is about to get tough to improve gender equity. The country will ‘name and shame’ companies that don’t hire or promote enough women. It’s also set to give preferential treatment to ‘family friendly’ companies applying for government contracts.

The first Female leader of the country Park Geun-Hye has declared helping women ‘balance family and work amongst the most critical items on her agenda’.  Amazing when you consider she is pretty busy dealing with the threat of the pariah nuclear state of North Korea.  It’s also rather surprising considering she’s been criticised for not having any sense of feminist agenda or commitment to equality in the past.

But for South Korea’s President this is probably more about the economy than the sisterhood.  South Korea is suffering from the cost of sexism.  The OECD actually cites the marginalisation of women as a key weakness in the South Korean economy. Labor shortages, a waste of female brainpower in senior jobs and the fact that women aren’t having enough babies is costing the country and stunting its growth.  Fifteen percent of Korean women don’t even get married these days and they have on average 1.2 babies each – not enough to sustain or replace an ageing population.

While our former Treasurer Peter Costello tried to get Australians breeding with the smirky plea  ‘one for mum, one for dad and one for the country’ he also introduced a baby bonus in case that didn’t get our juices flowing.   


In South Korea, focus has turned to the source of the blockage –workingrule  conditions and culture. McKinsey Consultancy found Korean women face the greatest pressure in Asia to leave their jobs and take care of their children once they have a family.  With the longest working hours in the OECD (regulations that limit workers to a 40 hour week plus a maximum of 12 hours overtime are regularly flouted) working women struggle to even see their kids let alone care for them.  Many, understandably quit work in their 30s to manage their children's intensely competitive education. 

Under the President’s plan, companies with at least 500 workers and a female share of the workforce that’s less than 70 percent of their industry’s average for three consecutive years may be outed as naughty.  So would businesses that had failed to do enough to tackle the gender disparity.

To make it easier to keep women at work there’ll also be encouragement of flexible working hours, more subsidies for leave, enhanced childcare programs (companies with more than 500 workers or 300 female employees are already supposed to run childcare centres at work) and better training for mothers seeking to re-enter the work force.  Stay at home dads are so rare that men will be further encouraged to take generous baby leave.

But for those that put culture solely to blame should note this has already worked in Korea’s public sector.  A mandate that required 30 percent of jobs to be female was so successful that women flooded into the service.  So much so that 30 percent ceiling now set for men.  

It’ll be interesting to see if naming and shaming companies will help in South Korea. But could it work here? And should we do the same?

Our Prime Minister Mr Rabbit likes a carrot approach to women in the workplace.  His new Paid Parental Leave may increase participation but as his blokey cabinet shows, he’s definitely not into promoting quotas or equality.  It may not matter, because the private sector is getting a little bit more threatening and stick like towards its own.  The Business Council of Australia has committed its members (120 of our biggest companies) to have 50 percent of senior roles filled by women in the next decade.  And it’s set to regularly test of chief executives and board members for unconscious gender bias and female-only hiring short lists. 

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency used to publicly name and shame companies that refused to report on their commitment to employing and advancing women.  It now tends to favor ‘encouraging best practice’. Yet it is getting tougher on what it requires companies to tell it.  In the past employers would have to just pay lip service to equity now they will have to provide hard data and strategies to achieve equity and they’ll have to do it under the Financial Management and Accountability Act. 

Shareholders will have access to these reports.  The Agency is encouraging all companies with more than 100 workers to set voluntary gender targets and some like the Commonwealth Bank and the ASX have done so. They’ll embarrass themselves if they fail.  Those who don’t report to the agency won’t be allowed to tender for government contracts.  There’ll also be a new Employer of Choice Awards for Gender Equality to be announced later this year. 

For those who do want to see some naming and shaming, the WGEA will continue to publish the names of companies who fail to adequately respond in its annual report. Buried on page 76 of last year’s report are those who failed to comply. They include Thomas Jewellers (Aust) Pty Ltd.  Ladies who love bling take note!


What do you think works? Encouragement or a kick up the butt?