South Korea's gender employment gap is driven almost entirely by family status, as married women with children are employed at significantly lower rates in South Korea than men and unmarried women without children. While recent strides have made work more family friendly, the government and firms can do much more to better support mothers who want to remain in the workforce.
Unmarried women without children are just as likely to be employed as men, but the labor force participation rate among married women aged 25–54 with children trails men by some 35 percentage points, once adjusted for age and educational attainment disparities (panel a). The gap has been gradually narrowing since the turn of the millennium, but progress has slowed in recent years. Panel b shows the employment gap between women with and without children shrinks after they reach their 40s, consistent with women leaving the workforce when their children are born and gradually returning later.
This particularly stark tradeoff between work and family is holding down female labor force participation in South Korea, which lags many other high-income economies. Women often must choose between a thriving career and successful family experience, as high-paying jobs require long hours and offer limited flexibility for working mothers.
These disparities—combined with a fertility rate that is the lowest of any advanced economy—are dampening the country's economic prospects and aggravating fiscal challenges caused by an aging population. Policies that increase work flexibility, make more part-time work available, and shift cultural norms around caregiving to promote gender parity can therefore strengthen South Korea's economic resilience.
This PIIE Chart is based on Karen Dynan, Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, and Anna Stansbury's Working Paper, Why Gender Disparities Persist in South Korea's Labor Market.