Will pandemic telework boost women’s careers in Japan, South Korea?
Gender equality gaps to be filled in Asia
Published: Jan 06, 2021 06:23 PM
COVID-19 could be a tipping point in the push to retain more women in the workforce in Japan and South Korea and for them to have families as new flexible work arrangements are expected to stay, according to researchers and recruiters.

Telework in South Korea Photo: VCG

The pandemic has disproportionately hit women's careers across the globe, with studies finding they are more likely to work in sectors badly impacted by COVID-19 and are picking up a heavier load of unpaid childcare and chores than men. But in Japan and South Korea, where employees are often under pressure to work long hours in the office with reports of death by overwork, more flexible working could make women rethink leaving jobs to start a family.

"If women are given such choice [of flexible working], they will likely utilize the opportunity," said Kyoko Nagano, a Japanese mother-of-two who has worked in local firms and now runs her own businesses in education and tourism.

"There will be positive impacts. Women will feel safer to have families," she told Reuters by phone from Tokyo.

Japan and South Korea have been pushing for more women to stay in the workforce in recent years as the two Asian nations struggle with a fast-aging population and low birth rates. But the gender gap in the workplace remains a challenge in both countries, which lag  behind other advanced economies.

Japan is ranked 121 and South Korea 108 out of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum's 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, with both scoring poorly on women's economic participation and political empowerment.

Japan in December 2020 adopted a new five-year gender equality plan after failing to reach half of a 30 percent target of women leaders in politics and business by the end of 2020.

Meanwhile, South Korea has the highest gender wage gap among advanced countries at 32.5 percent in 2019 - more than double the average for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations.

"Women workers are often held back because of the lack of flexibility in corporate jobs, and the 'time poverty' they face as unpaid care work falls disproportionately on their shoulders," said Anu Madgavkar of the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). Women would likely benefit from a hybrid work model of splitting workdays between office and home that is set to persist even after the pandemic, added Madgavkar, a partner at the MGI, the research arm of global consultancy firm McKinsey.

"This means women can spend less time commuting and gain more flexibility about how to manage work-related activities alongside care responsibilities," she said.

Telework has been slow to catch on in parts of Asia, which put a strong emphasis on being present at the office, until the coronavirus forced companies to rethink traditional offices.

Many Japanese firms had resisted home working in the past, and its intense work culture led to the phenomenon of karoshi, or death by overwork, when employees kill themselves or suffer strokes because of excessive hours. But about 80 percent of firms surveyed in Japan said they would continue flexible work after COVID-19, according to a poll of more than 3,000 companies across Asia by recruiting firm RGF Professional Recruitment which showed an "unprecedented shift" in the region.

The move could put higher emphasis on output than time spent at work.