Report reveals ‘survival’ techniques used by women in Korean HE

Female academics, especially mothers, face the double challenge of patriarchy and neoliberal management

October 30, 2020
Young pregnant Asian woman
Source: iStock

East Asian universities have climbed the global rankings as they shift to more performance-driven management systems that reward researchers for high citation numbers, but new reports are emerging across the region that suggest these practices may leave young female scholars behind. 

The latest of these analyses, which focuses on South Korean junior female academics (JFAs), was published this month in Higher Education.

It shows that neoliberal management policies increased pressure on academics to publish prolifically, specifically in the first five years after completing a doctorate. However, deep-rooted gender imbalances also meant that JFAs were expected to perform as “good mothers and wives” and faced the burdens of childbirth, childcare, “patriarchal networks, limited job opportunities, gender-based division of labour and harassment”.

“A quantitative, performance-based approach puts female academics in difficult situations in a patriarchal culture, as women are their family’s primary caretaker,” the report said.

Similar to the situation in China, certain assessment systems impacted Korean women’s life decisions. Some may “hesitate to marry and have children, given the limited time they have to achieve high performance and secure stable positions and research funding”, the report said.

Yangson Kim of the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University and Seung Jung Kim of the Korean Council for University Education conducted in-depth interviews with 13 fellow female Korean academics, all of whom were in the humanities or social sciences and had less than 10 years of work experience.

As there is already quantitative research on gender imbalances, particularly in STEM fields, the two researchers wanted to focus on the personal narratives of an overlooked demographic, and how they “survive in a neoliberal context of a patriarchal society”.

One interviewee at a top university, called O, warned that female academics who could not secure a job within five years of a PhD “could remain a homemaker regardless of her efforts”.

Another interviewee, N, was told by her male colleagues: “We stay up here until morning, but female professors can make excuses to go home to the baby or husband.” They used this as a reason for not wanting to collaborate with or hire more women.

Meanwhile, the interviewee H was frank about her struggles with being a mother. “When everything was set up to start my research, I got pregnant with my second child. So, I cried and cried,” she said.

Korean JFAs resorted to “survival” tactics such as sleeping less, hiding early pregnancy during job interviews or skipping maternity leave they were owed.

The new analysis comes just months after the South Korean Education Ministry told universities to increase the proportion of full professors who are female to 25 per cent by 2030. However, critics have said that the government’s target is still far from parity and would not have much impact without deeper policy changes.

One challenge was that gender-related problems were considered “personal issues” in South Korea, according to the report. Therefore, they were not addressed well at a systemic level and also caused low self-esteem among the JFAs, who saw their challenges as personal failures. 

The authors recommended institutional and policy solutions, such as better funding, affirmative action and policies that recognise that young women’s working time frames may be different from men’s.

They also stressed female mentoring, a practice that is also being discussed in Japan, where women face similar challenges.

Psychological support was crucial, as were efforts to “establish JFAs as part of the academic community” in order to challenge cultural biases.

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