Kim Hee-jung is the Minister of Gender Equality and Family of the Republic of Korea, and a Co-Chair of the Korea Gender Parity Taskforce, a World Economic Forum initiative. Here she talks about the efforts South Korea is making to close the gender gap, from government support for paternity leave to the role of the private sector in boosting women’s careers.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle to achieving gender parity?

We have made a lot of progress with women’s rights in Korea, but there are still some misunderstandings and prejudices that are blocking gender equality.

The first misunderstanding is the idea that if women gain more opportunities, men will lose out. This is not accurate: gender equality does not harm men, but it allows women, who make up half the world’s population, to achieve their full potential. Men and women should grow together in all sectors, including politics, economics, culture and other social sectors. This would help us overcome the low growth and low birthrates of this era, and would help secure sustainable development. The statistics show that in OECD countries with high rates of female economic participation, birthrates and economic growth rates tend also to be higher.

The second misunderstanding is that childcare and housework are jobs for women, and that work-life balance issues are female concerns. It’s true that in the past, women took care of housework and childcare, and men financially supported their families. So to talk about women’s work-life balance issues is some progress. But we have to go further and start talking about work-life balance for both men and women, and how we can achieve this.

The Korean government is unveiling various policies to support work-life balance, including an increase in the number of daycare centres and a system for childcare leave. But here is the third misunderstanding: people think that by using these services, they are creating hassle for their employers and colleagues. The result is they don’t use them.

True gender equality can only be achieved when we help both men and women reach a work-life balance, and we can only do this when we change our preconceptions.

Q: What steps has the Gender Parity Task Force taken to close the gender gap?

The Korean Ministry of Gender Equality & Family is focusing on ways of ensuring people can fully benefit from the different policies and systems we have in place to achieve work-life balance for both men and women.

One example of how we’re doing this is with our “Best Family Friendly Management” certifications, which provide various incentives and government certifications for companies that have family-friendly policies for both men and women. It started with 14 companies back in 2008, and today we have 956 companies involved. And it’s not just for big companies, but also local government bodies along with small and medium enterprises. Certified companies are already doing a lot to make sure their policies are family-friendly.

Another example is the two-track support for paternity leave. The first track, one of President Park’s election pledges, was introduced last October. Under this system, if a mother uses her childcare leave and then a father wants to use his childcare leave, the government will pay 100% of his first month’s salary instead of the 40% that we did in the past.

For the second track, the government is providing financial support to companies who need to hire temporary replacements for staff on childcare leave. Small and medium companies get 600,000 won and large companies get 300,000 won. This type of support will allow employees to use the leave they are entitled to without having to worry about the effect it might have on their company.

The “Support Center for Working Moms and Dads”, which we will be putting in place this year, is another example. Working couples don’t have enough time to carry out research on the support they might be entitled to. It will provide customized information.

Q: What has worked best? And what has been the most difficult to implement?

Although Korea was 26th in the World Economic Forum’ Global Competitiveness Index, we were just 117th in its Gender Parity Index. I always mention these two figures at the same time, because I want to emphasize that improving gender parity in politics, economics and other social sectors is the way to improve our national competitiveness.

Korea formed the Task Force on Gender Parity and Empowerment of Women to achieve gender equality in all sectors. So far, we’ve had quite some success.

First, the private sector is operating the task force autonomously. With the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 100 private companies and public organizations, and 17 government ministries are participating. The task force has an “implementation agenda”, whereby task force members commit to implementing gender equality in all areas, including employment, work-life balance and female representation. Each participating member established autonomous implementation plans and there have been several examples of success. In fact, even though it’s only in its first year, we already have 40 examples of success.

Second, there has been a shift in mentality, and women in Korea are now considered as essential to the long-term development and success of companies.

Third, the successful cases of female employment and work-life balance, which are tailored for each company, are becoming the driving force for larger changes in society. National laws can be a burden for many companies, due to their uniform application, but these cases are easy to apply to all companies. I hope that we start seeing them applied in companies of all sizes, especially small and medium firms, which account for a considerable amount of female employment.

Q: What are the next steps in narrowing the gap and why is it so important to do so?

To narrow the gender gap and ensure women get the same opportunities as men, we need to implement the 4Rs: recruitment, retention, restart and representation for women, at the same time considering how a woman’s life takes shape.

In Korea, when women first enter the workforce, they tend to do well. But as soon as they have children, many women leave the labour market. When they’re ready to return, they find their opportunities are limited and their prospects for promotion are low.

In the future, our task force plans to get more women into the workplace and help them become managers. The Ministry of Gender Equality & Family has two policies to support this.

The first one is the Women’s Resources Academy, which aims to increase the number of female managers. It will help women recognize their areas for improvement and teach them how to do so through customized training such as role plays and group discussions.

The second one is the Women’s Resources Database, which will match qualified female candidates with appropriate jobs. Women who have the right qualifications and skills will be registered in the database and then recommended as candidates for various government committees or public organizations. The ministry plans to fill at least 100,000 positions using this system.

The task force will only be in place for three years, so it’s hard to make a huge difference in that time. However, I’m sure that the joint efforts by the government and private sector will provide the momentum needed to promote gender equality, so we must continue working at it.

Image: Kim Hee-jung, minister of family and gender equality, speaks during an interview with Reuters at her office in Seoul December 8, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji