Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

South Korea can close gender gap

By Lee Jong-wha (China Daily) Updated: 2014-03-25 07:41

The good news is that Park's government is working to change this. Indeed, its three - year plan for economic innovation, announced in February, aims to raise the female employment rate to 62 percent by 2017, through the provision of affordable, high-quality childcare facilities and expanded paid parental leave, among other measures.

But it is less clear how the government will create additional jobs for women. It could, for example, split full-time jobs into multiple part - time positions, and offer incentives for workers to reduce their hours. But, given that South Korea's workforce already includes a substantial share of non-regular workers, increasing temporary employment may not contribute to economic growth.

A better approach would entail creating high-quality jobs in modern service industries. As it stands, while the services sector accounts for more than 70 percent of employment in South Korea, its productivity-growth rate remains much lower than that of the manufacturing sector. Too many people are working in traditional, low-productivity service industries, such as wholesale, the retail trade and restaurants, leaving modern, high - productivity services such as communications, healthcare, financial intermediation, and business services underdeveloped.

It is also important to narrow the mismatch between women's abilities and their career paths. The current system tends to reinforce gender roles, encouraging children to follow culturally framed paths, instead of nurturing their individual interests and potential.

For example, female university students are much more likely to study humanities than the so-called "STEM" subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) - key drivers of productivity gains, innovation, and economic growth. Efforts by primary and secondary schools could help to foster more diverse interests among female students, giving talented young women the tools they need to make important contributions to key economic sectors.

Of course, the potential of educated, empowered women to drive sustained economic growth is not limited to South Korea. In South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, developing and maximizing women's potential will require comprehensive education and labor-market reforms, as well as structural change, particularly on the services side of the economy. The question is whether political leaders are ready to back their lofty pronouncements with decisive action.

The author is professor of economics and director of the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University.

Project Syndicate.

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