The Koreas

How Do South Koreans View Gender Discrimination?

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The Koreas | Society | East Asia

How Do South Koreans View Gender Discrimination?

The topic was a focal point of the 2022 presidential campaign. What do South Koreans think of the issue now, especially under the Yoon Suk-yeol administration?

How Do South Koreans View Gender Discrimination?
Credit: Depositphotos

South Korea’s “Me Too” movement sparked discussion on gender equality issues and discrimination, laying the groundwork for a new wave of feminism to take root, and even challenging those previously considered untouchable, like former presidential candidate Ahn Hee-Jung. By 2017, then-presidential candidate Moon Jae-in campaigned with promises of gender equality efforts within the government, and in 2019 the Moon administration enacted legislation attempted to address workplace harassment.

Still, the country maintains one of the largest gender pay gaps in developed economies. According to OECD data in 2022, men made 31.2 percent more than women, the highest wage gap among OECD members. The second-highest wage gap is in Israel, at 25.4 percent.

Despite hopes for a broader feminist movement and attention to claims of discrimination against women, such efforts sparked pushback among young Korean men. This gave rise to the phenomenon of 이대남  or “idaenam,” which literally translates to “men in their 20s” but figuratively also conveys a sense of anger and discontent.

Leading into the 2022 presidential election, anti-feminist backlash took center stage, potentially aiding in the victory of the People Power Party’s candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon directly appealed toward the so-called idaenam, playing into anti-feminist ideology. On the campaign trail, Yoon denied that gender inequality existed and suggested abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, claiming that its continuation would only treat men as “potential sex criminals.” He even implied that South Korea’s dwindling birth rate is a result of feminism.

Some defended Yoon’s comments, suggesting he was simply uninformed or a “late learner.” However, Yoon’s position was neither an uncommon nor an unpopular one. In 2021, the chairman of the PPP, Lee Jun-seok, lambasted Moon’s equality measures, also stating that the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family should be abolished. Even presidential candidate of Moon’s Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, also attempted to appeal to anti-feminist sentiment.

Largely missing in these discussions of gender discrimination is whether the public views discrimination as commonplace and to what extent South Koreans have personally experienced gender discrimination. Survey work over the past four years similarly suggests a growing view, especially among younger men, who believe that they are the targets of discrimination and that equality efforts exacerbate this.

While assessing South Korea’s status on gender equality remains complicated, we focus on one aspect: perceptions of discrimination and perceived changes since Yoon’s inauguration. We surveyed 1,300 South Korean citizens in a national web survey from September 27 to October 11, implemented by Macromill Embrain, with quota sampling based on gender, age, and region. In this, we asked several general questions related to gender discrimination and discrimination seen under Yoon’s presidency.

First, we asked respondents, “Do you believe that gender discrimination is commonplace in South Korea?” Overall, we find the public nearly evenly split, with 51 percent believing it is commonplace, with women far more likely to answer in the affirmative (60 percent vs. 42 percent). These numbers suggest a marked decrease in rates by about 20 percent among both men and women compared to a year ago; however, this may be a function of increased attention to gender issues during the campaign cycle.

In addition, we see little difference among age cohorts 18-29, 30-39, 40-49, and 50-59, with majorities between 50.6 percent and 55.9 percent stating gender discrimination is commonplace. Only the 60+ cohort was more likely to say that it is not (55.9 percent).

However, when broken down by cohort and gender, a few noticeable distinctions emerge. First, among men, belief that gender discrimination is common peaks among those 18-29 (45.9 percent), dropping to 37.7 percent among those 60+. In contrast, among women, over two-thirds of all cohorts under 50 stated discrimination was commonplace, with the lowest rates overall among the 60+ group at 49.5 percent.
Next, we asked, “Have you been the victim of gender discrimination?” A minority answered yes (42.6 percent), but with much higher rates among women (61.6 percent vs. 23.8 percent). Broken down by age, we see claims from men are highest in the 18-29 cohort (36.1 percent), with similar rates among those 40-49 (33.1 percent). Among women, all cohorts under 60 had roughly two-thirds of respondents or more claim they had been a victim, the highest rates among those aged 30-39 (76.6 percent). In addition, having been a victim strongly corresponds with believing discrimination is commonplace, even after controlling for gender, age, income, education, and political ideology.

Taken together, these findings suggest that younger South Korean men are more likely to believe gender discrimination exists – but that is likely because more men in this age group believe that they themselves have experienced discrimination, not because they believe women face structural barriers to equality.

Finally, we asked, “Do you think gender discrimination has increased, decreased, or stayed about the same since the election of President Yoon?” Here, we see clear majorities believe it has stayed about the same (63.9 percent), with women only slightly more likely to give this answer compared to men (65.4 percent vs. 62.4 percent).

However, a clear divergence emerges when separated by views on discrimination as commonplace. Among those who disagreed that gender discrimination is common in South Korea, 71.1 percent saw no change under Yoon, and 17.4 percent indicated an increase. However, those who said yes to the first question were nearly twice as likely to say discrimination increased (34.4 percent), although a majority still saw no change (57 percent). Broken down by gender, this pattern endures; those who believe gender discrimination is commonplace were about twice as likely to say discrimination increased under Yoon.

One interpretation for these patterns may be that those who already believed discrimination to be commonplace were more likely to be primed to see discrimination. Among women in this group, the rhetoric of the election cycle may have also led to assumptions that opposition to gender equality efforts would exacerbate discrimination. This speaks more broadly to the challenge of measuring views on discrimination beyond one’s personal experiences.

The role of discrimination in election rhetoric may have also heightened perceptions in 2022. Looking back at survey data from 2022 shortly after Yoon’s victory, 83.8 percent of women believed that gender discrimination was commonplace in South Korea and among men in 2022, 36 percent responded in the affirmative. This further suggests that rhetoric surrounding election cycles may have an impact on these results.

Whether gender discrimination has changed substantively under the Yoon administration is unlikely to be evident in the short term. Moreover, with declining approval ratings and conflicts within his own party, addressing discrimination perceptions may not be the priority that the election campaigning suggested.

However, perceptions of discrimination may create additional challenges. For example, according to the World Economic Forum, South Korea saw one of the largest regressions in the region in terms of gender parity in political engagement from 2022-2023 in East Asia.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS) as well as the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

Guest Author

Timothy S. Rich

Timothy S. Rich is a professor of Political Science and director of the International Public Opinion Lab at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics, emphasizing Taiwan and South Korea. 

Guest Author

Serena White

Serena White is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Chinese and International Affairs.

Guest Author

Josie Coyle

Josie Coyle is a recent alumna from Western Kentucky University, majoring in International Affairs and Chinese.