TOKYO — Is South Korea ready for "Madame President" to become part of the national vernacular?
The answer to the question that has dominated dinner-table, water-cooler and executive-suite chatter for months is yes. Polls suggest Park Geun-hye will not only become the country’s first female leader on Wednesday, but also the first woman to head a nation in north Asia. It will be a milestone for a region known more for patriarchal succession than gender equality.
That raises another question that deserves urgent attention: What is it with Asia’s female paradox?
Asia leads the globe in the number of years women have ruled. For all the excitement about Hillary Clinton perhaps running for president in 2016, female leaders are old hat in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Soong Ching Ling led China briefly on more than one occasion and, while she never took office, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected leader of Myanmar in 1990.
It is puzzling, then, that Asia also is up there among the world leaders in gender discrimination all at the price of growth. The United Nations estimates that limiting female employment costs Asia $89 billion a year in lost output. A region struggling to raise many of its three billion people out of poverty squanders roughly the annual gross domestic product of Slovakia because it favours men. How dumb is that?
"Economic development correlates positively with gender equality," said Astrid Tuminez, vice-dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
South Korea’s 50 million people may be ready for a female leader even though the nation’s gender rankings are dreadful. The pay gap is the worst among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members — 39 per cent in 2010, more than double the OECD average of 15 per cent. The World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 108th in gender equality of 135 countries, trailing the United Arab Emirates, Burkina Faso and Cambodia.
Japan isn’t much better. The WEF places it behind Indonesia and Azerbaijan. In the lead-up to the Dec. 16 Japanese election, there was no discussion of how ignoring half of the labour force hurts growth and deepens deflation. Goldman Sachs estimates that if Japan’s female employment rate matched men (about 80 per cent), gross domestic product would get a 15 per cent boost.
In China and India, it’s a challenge for women to be born at all. A cultural preference for boys and scientific advances increasing the number of sex-selection abortions are causing dangerous demographic imbalances.
Why the disconnect between female leaders and social and economic advancement? In a report titled Rising to the Top? Tuminez points to Asia’s dynastic traditions. Women often attain power on account of who their fathers, husbands or family are. Here, think Sonia Gandhi in India, Megawati Soekarnoputri in Indonesia, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines, Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand and Park in South Korea.
Park, 60, is the daughter of the dictator Park Chung Hee and is widely expected to win Wednesday’s contest. Prominent South Korean women are already anticipating a sea change.
"If she becomes the top leader in Korea, we’ll break through everything — glass, concrete," fashion magnate Kim Sung-joo, who runs the Sungjoo Group, told Bloomberg News last month. "That will equalize men and women in Korean society."
Sexist rants against the unmarried Park also have been many. My personal favourite came from a spokesman for presidential candidate Moon Jae-in: "Candidate Park has no femininity," said Park Kwang-on. "She has never lived a life agonizing over childbirth, childcare, education and grocery prices." Someone ought to tell Moon’s team that it’s 2012, not 1912. Others say a woman might not be able to stand up to North Korea.
At least some companies are starting to tap into the underutilized female masses to augment a fast-aging labour force. Samsung Group has gotten lots of good press in this regard, promoting more women to executive positions. Yet its Samsung Electronics Co. arm is still on the list of major multinationals with no women directors, which includes Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc.
A recent McKinsey & Co. study highlights the advantages that await inclusive companies. South Korea’s failure to address its gender problems openly and urgently will reduce the odds of producing the next Samsung or Hyundai Motor Co. Only half of the country’s women aged 15 years or older were working last year and enrollment of females in higher education is the lowest among 34 OECD members.
That must change if South Korea is to thrive, and who better to engineer the shift than Madame President? It isn’t enough that Park challenges stereotypes in a nation ruled by men in dark suits. She must help women balance the duel demands of work and family. More plentiful and affordable childcare is an important first step. Quotas for female executives and senior government-ministry jobs should be considered.
This no longer is just an issue of fairness or human rights. Growth and prosperity hang on gender equality. Put it that way and even the aging, gray-haired men who cling to power in Asia might get it.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.