The Role of Women in South Korea

The role of women in South Korea still remains the subject of academic papers, blogs and news articles.[1] Although women certainly have more opportunities than they did a hundred years ago, some believe Confucian ideals for women continue to shape South Korean women’s lives.

For example, I have to some extent experienced this gender divide. While I was in South Korea, I stayed with a very strong Korean woman who heads a Christian organization in Gwang-Ju. For the majority of my visit, we remained in the company of other women. During this time she was strong, decisive and capable. However, at the end of the stay, we had an appointment in Seoul with the South Korean Defense Minister. Men in the organization decided we needed to be escorted for this visit. While around these men, my friend’s behavior changed dramatically. She did not make decisions and followed the suggestions the male members of our party made. As I seemed puzzled by this change in behavior, she actually explained to me in English, which they could not understand, that she had to do what they said. I couldn’t help but think of the irony of the situation when the men in our party were not admitted into the building where the Defense Minister was holding meetings – only my friend and I went in to talk with Kim Kwan-Jin.

Another example – Korean women experience a very specific Confucian ideal in something they call “시 월드” (interestingly enough pronounced “she world”). 시, Romanized “si”, actually is a prefex meaning “groom’s side of the family”, so for Korean women “si world” is the world of their in-laws. In following Confucian ideals from years ago in which Korean women left their natal home to serve their in-laws, Korean wives who visit their in-laws today are expected to do all the cooking and cleaning during their visit. These expectations extend also to their brothers and sisters-in-law. My Korean friend talks about “si world” to me and we marvel at our cultural differences.

These experiences helped lead me to and helped shape my research question. Cultural divides still exist. I have to cross that cultural divide every time I interact with my friend who still lives in Korea and my friend who recently moved here from Korea. These modern day encounters actually led me to think about Subrahmanyam’s ideas of commensurability. My Blacksburg Korean friend and I often work at bridging that cultural divide. It often brings up misunderstandings and confusion, but those often lead to better understandings of each other in the end – because we are open to making it work. We are not dogmatic about our own cultural ideas but freely share in the other’s. I learn to play the traditional Korean chuseok game (Chuseok is kind of like our Thanksgiving) and they eat chili and cornbread on cold wintry nights. She listens and helps me with my very rough Korean and I help her with her pretty good English. I don’t always understand her and she doesn’t always understand me, but that’s okay.

Debate in South Korea over the role of women continues. South Korean women more and more are taking steps to move out of Confucian ideals. One of those moves, interestingly enough, is that more and more women chose to not marry… They are highly educated, devoted to their jobs and want no part of “Si World.”


[1] Wachira Kigotho, “Women Enrol in Science but Not STEM,” University World News, February 21, 2015, 00355 edition; “Korean Women Need to Stand as One for Social Change,” accessed February 21, 2015,; Sirin Sung, “Women Reconciling Paid and Unpaid Work in a Confucian Welfare State: The Case of South Korea,” Social Policy & Administration 37, no. 4 (August 1, 2003): 342–60, doi:10.1111/1467-9515.00344.


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4 Responses to The Role of Women in South Korea

  1. Anonymous

    You might want to talk to Deborah Milly in the Political Science department. She is a Japan specialist but has done quite a bit of work on Korea as well. It’s clear that present-day concerns shape the way you approach your project — will probably be important for you to look at the position of women in US society at the turn of the twentieth century, and also their roles in religious organizations at home. An old book, “The Feminization of American Culture” by Ann Douglas, might give you some ideas.

  2. Claire

    Hi Faith,

    Have you looked very much into how the oppression of women in Korea fits into the larger global issue of patriarchal hegemony? Your Korean associate deferred to the men in the situation you described, but I’m sure you could find many instances of American women doing this as well, though it may look different, and we might not notice it as much because we are used to it. It might be interesting to do a comparison, rather than just focus on the oppression of women in Confucian culture.


  3. faithskiles

    Absolutely! That is where I am headed next…There is a good bit of what I believe is missionary women decrying the life of the Korean women without recognizing some of the same patriarchal hegemony in their own lives.

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