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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

December 31, 2007

Written by C.N.

Changing Gender Attitudes in South Korea

It’s a well-known phenomenon that in virtually all Asian countries, there has been and continues to be a strong traditional preference of males over females. One of the consequences of this is that pregnancies are more likely to aborted if the fetus is a girl.

In turn, this has led to growing gender imbalances in many countries and worries about significant social problems in the future because of this gender imbalance. However, as the New York Times reports, this gender imbalance is actually being reversed in South Korea, as the cultural notions about the value of boys versus girls are slowly changing:

According to a study released by the World Bank in October, South Korea is the first of several Asian countries with large sex imbalances at birth to reverse the trend, moving toward greater parity between the sexes. Last year, the ratio was 107.4 boys born for every 100 girls, still above what is considered normal, but down from a peak of 116.5 boys born for every 100 girls in 1990.

The most important factor in changing attitudes toward girls was the radical shift in the country’s economy that opened the doors to women in the work force as never before and dismantled long-held traditions, which so devalued daughters that mothers would often apologize for giving birth to a girl. . . .

In the 1970s and ’80s, the country threw itself into an industrial revolution that would remake society in ways few South Koreans could have imagined.

Sons drifted away to higher-paying jobs in the cities, leaving their parents behind. And older Koreans found their own incomes rising, allowing them to save money for retirement rather than relying on their sons for support.

Married daughters, no longer shackled to their husbands’ families, returned to provide emotional or financial support for their own elderly parents.

In short, because achieving a comfortable economic situation is no longer so dependent on the husband’s income, the value of South Korean wives has increased based on their own economic contributions to their families and because they are more likely to provide emotional support for their aging parents.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see that the old patriarchal notion that males are more valuable than females is beginning to reversed — that was always a sexist and discriminatory idea that unnecessarily led to much social inequality and division. In that regard, South Koreans should be applauded and their example will hopefully inspire other Asian countries to do the same.

But on the other hand, aren’t we just trading in one set of gender biases for another? In other words, while the overall status of women in South Korea has increased, much of that increase is apparently based on the expectation that wives will be primarily responsible for emotionally supporting their parents as they grow older.

Therefore, doesn’t this expectation only reinforce gender stereotypes and limit the overall life choices that women have?

I suppose you can’t change everything — or centuries of tradition — overnight, so perhaps we need to be satisfied with small, little victories, one at at a time. In other words, some progress is better than no progress.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Changing Gender Attitudes in South Korea" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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