A mother and her child wait for a signal at a zebra crossing in downtown Seoul, South Korea, April 3, 2020.

Publication Type

Why gender disparities persist in South Korea’s labor market

Working Papers 22-11
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Heo Ran

This research is part of a 2022 series on the Korean economy. For additional research, look under "Recommended."


Although the South Korean economy fared relatively well on the whole during the pandemic, the labor market consequences were uneven, with women experiencing worse outcomes than men. These gender disparities have reinforced and highlighted important longer-term gender-related challenges in the South Korean labor market. Despite an above-average level of female tertiary education, the gender pay gap in South Korea is at the top of the range among OECD countries. The labor force participation rate is 20 percentage points lower for women than for men, a difference that is about one-quarter larger than the average for high-income countries. These disparities—as well as fertility that is the lowest of any advanced economy country in the world—reduce South Korea's future economic prospects and will contribute to fiscal challenges as the population rapidly ages. The analysis in this paper suggests that the combination of low female employment and low fertility in South Korea reflects features of the traditional nature of work that create a particularly stark tradeoff for women between work and family and put pressure on women to choose one or the other. This tradeoff has increased in recent years because the opportunity cost of having a child has risen with the rapid growth in the tertiary education rate of South Korean women. Regressions based on individual-level data from the Korean Labor and Income Panel Study (KLIPS) show that the entire gap in female labor force participation is driven by married women, particularly women with children. Unmarried women with no children are just as likely to be employed as men. A sizable "child earnings penalty" for South Korean women is fully explained by women dropping out of the labor force after the birth of their first child rather than reducing hours or hourly wages. Although South Korea has made strides toward making work more family friendly, there is scope to do better.

Data Disclosure:

The data underlying this analysis can be downloaded here [zip].

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