“The Importance of Women for the Future of Korea” (essay)

 I made this presentation at Korea’s Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Association’s “21st Century Women Leaders Forum.” I was invited by the chairman, Dr. Myungja Kim, who is a close friend. She served as the minister of the environment previously and has distinguished herself as one of the few scientists deeply engaged in the policy debate. I was the only man at the event and perhaps the only man to ever present at the forum. Most likely i was invited because of my recent article arguing that the next president of KAIST should be a woman.

I brought with me a special guest: my daughter Rachel who is now seven years old. It seemed a unique opportunity for Rachel to see professional women engaged in a serious discussion and I hope that the experience at some level encourages her to think more deeply about her own future. I remember how my father took me to meetings and events as a young child and the sense of self-confidence that the experience instilled in me.

This paper is not professionally researched. I think it stands unique, however, as an assessment of how the limited role of women in Korea is holding the country back.

Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations

21st Century Women Leaders Forum

January 12, 2012


21세기 여성리더스포럼(32)


2012 1 12()

오후 4 30

한국과학기술회관 지하1 소회의실 2호실


이만열 (임마누엘 페스트라이쉬)

경희대학교 후마니타스 칼리지



Emanuel Pastreich

“The Importance of Women for the Future of Korea”


Korea is a nation facing a remarkable challenge. Although Korean parents have essentially the same expectations for their daughters as for their sons in elementary middle and high school, Korea does not provide the necessary infrastructure, mentoring or work opportunities that would permit women to do the work they were trained to do. Thus, although we find that women as a whole are better managers, are more reliable and in general harder workers than their male colleagues, Korean society has not yet created a space to allow women to fully participate in administrative structures and realize their ambitions.

As a result, Korea now faces a tremendous challenge. Korea has one of the lowest birthrates, and the most quickly aging populations, in the world. This state of affairs did not happen by accident. Women have chosen not to get married and not to have children even if they do get married. I have encountered numerous women who tell me quite explicitly that they have no intention to get married or to have children. These educated women made such a decision because Korean families place such overwhelming demands on them as mothers and wives that they cannot pursue their careers. At the same time, Korean companies make so little effort to provide childcare or to support women in their careers through career coaching, mentoring or fast-track promotion. It would not cost Korean companies much to set up well-lighted daycare centers at all offices with cameras that would allow women to watch their children while they work. But because Korea does not make such an effort, Korean women have chosen, in protest, not to have children. The demographic consequences for Korea are obvious.

The most fundamental challenge for Korea today is to resolve the contradiction between the expectations of parents for girls, and self-image inculcated in girls and the realities faced by women in their careers. Women face something worse than a simple glass ceiling, it is as if Korean girls were raised in anticipation of a world that does not exist. Suddenly, at the age of twenty or twenty-five women find that the study they did is not recognized and there is no clear road forward. 

There is another challenge for Korean women: the dearth of historical role models for women. The importance of Korean women in Korean society has risen dramatically over the last 20 years. Today, many professors confess that their best students are the women. Yet in Korean history we do not find many successful career women that serve as role models for girls. The case is even more serious in the case of the scientists. We need, in a sense, to create a myth of the Korean woman scientist from which all girls, from a young age, can draw inspiration. The establishment of new images of women, of new role models and new mentoring systems is the most pressing issue for Korea’s future.

Let us say a few words about women in science. Women have an immense amount to contribute in the field of science, particularly because of the accelerating rate of technological change. The skill set required science today is different than it was thirty years ago, and even different from what it was five or ten years ago. Previously, relentless concentration on a single topic was the key to success. That approach has far less relevance today. Men may excel in that sort of single-mindedness. But today the analysis of data is becoming automated as part of basic hardware or software.

In the place of the number crunching of the previous generation, we now need to integrate the perspectives of varied fields and maintain a balanced perspective of the research process. The sensitivity for multiple facets of an issue (social, economic, aesthetic and moral) is now at a premium. The need for integrative approaches to the analysis of information and technology, and the consideration of aesthetic and moral issues will continue to increase.

Moreover, the new focus on the environment and sustainability in our society demands an increased role of women. In a sense, we must take those aspects of genre roles which held women back previously and reinterpret them positively for a new age. If women were more concerned with social context, as opposed to absolute value, they must play a critical role now that the implications of technology for society, and not technology itself, is our concern. Feminine concerns with social relations are also essential in a network society wherein the careful maintenance of relations with people from various backgrounds and the pursuit of cooperative relations are more important than competition or individual achievement.

So also, in the specific case of science, there is a pressing demand to reestablish the social relevance of science and technology. In an age of restricted funding for research and development, it is essential that we determine the actual value in daily life, for human welfare, of scientific innovation. We can no longer pursue technologies simply because they are there. There is a complex relationship between humans and the technologies that they create. Although there has always been a tremendous challenge, the rate of technological change today dwarfs anything in our history. Feminine concern with the social significance of the technology, as opposed to abstract concepts of the “modern,” and the “advanced” are essential. Women can step back and reflect on the process of technological evolution in moral terms. I am reminded in this context of Paul Goodman’s phrase,

“Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.”[1]

The moral aspect of how we will apply technology is paramount today and in this respect women will play the central role going forward. We are no longer as concerned with the creation of new technology, as with its application. The acceleration of technological innovation resulting from Moore’s Law means that patents and potential new technologies are increasingly unimportant. Rather the overarching concept of what people need and awareness how technology transforms the human experience is more critical than any one technology.

We should say a word about the conundrum of dual use today. Whereas military and civilian applications of technologies were previously quite distinct, today technological change is radically reconfiguring the distinction. All fields, nano-technology, bio-technology, civil and electrical engineering have civilian and military applications. In an age in which everything has a potential military application and military technologies can be easily applied for other purposes, the sense of balance that women excel in is absolutely essential.

Korea’s military has no women generals at present. If we imagine a general as a person who leads men on horseback into battle, perhaps an argument can be made for why women should not serve as generals. But today security itself must be more broadly defined to include the environment and technology itself. In such a world, the traditional military operation would be the exception, not the rule, and we not only can, but must have women as generals in Korea.    

The expansion of the role of women in Korea is critical to Korea’s new global role. One of the biggest barriers keeping Korea from taking full advantage of opportunities for international cooperation is the emphasis on hierarchy and undue inflexibility found in Korean organizations. I hear constantly from internationals doing business with Korea that such hierarchy, and the male-centered administrative culture, is the most difficult part of Korea to deal with. It might well be that the introduction of women into key positions in Korea is essential to creating a more flexible and more horizontal corporate and government culture in Korea that dovetails with the cultures of other nations.

Finally, Korean women are simply less corrupt. Women working in business and government tend to play by the rules and to avoid back room deals. If you wanted to find a way to counter the insidious culture of room salons that plagues Korean society, a world of backroom personal relations in which men are seduced by power and money and led to make informal and improper agreements, there could be no better way than to appoint women as the CEOs of Korean corporations. Such women would have no interest in bar hostesses or late-night drinking bouts. 

We must encourage a sense of social responsibility in women, in girls. We must overcome the consumer mentality that focuses attention on how women are perceived, making use of the caring and nurturing instincts of women to lead them to take responsibility for their society and the world. This point may seem obvious, but it is not necessarily so. I have met numerous Korean women with exceptional skills who simply cannot make use of their ability. They are either caught up in narcissistic concepts of their own needs, or intimidated by an unrealistic vision of what “success” means.  

We need to create critical positive images of women and their roles in society, particularly women’s role in science and technology. We can imagine comic books for children in which the girls presented are hard working scholars; brave, innovative and dedicated to others. We can also imagine a popular TV drama in which the protagonist is a woman scientist who dedicates her life to saving the environment. Such images can have an immense impact on how girls see themselves and the possibilities before them. Even if there are few actual women who serve as role models for girls, TV and media can create such role models.

Moreover, because Korea is the most powerful cultural force in Asia today, the roles that women play in Korea impacts the roles that women play around the world. Korea should take the initiative, going beyond playing catch up, to play a leading role as a trendsetter. Korea historically has the potential to make such massive social transformations, and must do so again now, not only for the sake of Korea, but for the sake of the world.

I would like to close by placing stress on the connection of women with technology. Women are the decision makers about purchases, about the use of energy and water and about the culture of consumption. They have the greatest impact on the use of resources and the education of children. The degree to which average women, not just Ph.D.s, fully comprehend technology its implications for society is critical for our future. As technology evolves with increasing speed, the general familiarity of women for science and technology will make the difference between social catastrophe and cultural innovation.


[1] “New Reformation,” Paul Goodman.

One response to ““The Importance of Women for the Future of Korea” (essay)

  1. Pingback: ‘The Importance of Women for the Future of Korea’

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