In South Korea, over 40 percent of women experience a career break after marriage. They are commonly referred to as “career-interrupted women” (gyeong-dan-nyeo), highlighting a trend in which women’s professional development is interrupted by marriage and childrearing. In Japan, the phrase “good wife, wise mother” (ryosai kenbo) paints the image of how an “ideal” woman ought to behave. On the other end of the spectrum, Chinese media and the All-China Women’s Federation have promulgated the idea that unmarried urban females over 27 are “leftover women” (sheng nu), “worth less and less” as they get older despite having successful careers.
These stigmatizing labels reflect ingrained cultural beliefs surrounding women in East Asia and their dilemma of having to balance between family responsibilities and career aspirations. These same stereotypes are reflected in discriminatory employment practices, which continue to hold back progress toward gender equality in East Asia. Out of 146 countries analyzed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023, Japan, China, and South Korea rank 105th, 106th, and 125th, respectively.
As seen in Table 1, fertility rates in all three countries have fallen further below the replacement rate of 2.1 in the past three decades, but this has not translated into significant improvements in female labor force participation. While OECD countries with higher employment rates for women have managed to achieve high fertility rates, both women’s economic participation and birth rates remain low in East Asia. Expectations for women to perform household duties and care work constrain their participation in the labor force, yet it is precisely the same set of norms that are discouraging working women from marrying and having children.
In other words, women in East Asia face a double burden, rooted in traditional gender norms and roles.
Table 1: Gender Gap Indicators in East Asia
|Fertility Rate (1990)
|Fertility Rate (2021)
|Labor Force Participation Rate (Female)
|Labor Force Participation Rate (Male)
|Estimated Earned Income Gap
|Women in Legislature
|Time Spent on Unpaid Domestic and Care Work (Female/Male)
|Length of Parental Leave (Female)
|Length of Parental Leave (Male)
The Confucian Roots of East Asian Gender Norms
East Asian conceptions of women’s role in society are largely derived from Confucianism, which views society as based on hierarchical relationships and emphasizes family virtues such as filial piety. Women’s roles are confined to the household, serving as wives to husbands and mothers to children. The Confucian philosopher Mencius believed that the failure of women to have descendants is the worst of unfilial acts.
Gender norms rooted in Confucian ideologies have become deeply embedded in East Asian society through the processes of socialization and education. For instance, Japanese preschool teachers were observed to encourage gendered speech and behavioral patterns that inculcate gender roles among children.
Traditional family values are also institutionalized in Chinese political discourse. After China abolished its one-child policy, state media agency Xinhua applauded working women for “returning from the workplace to the family.” Ironically, China’s Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests stipulates that women should respect and obey “professional ethics and family virtues.” At the 2023 opening of the National Women’s Congress, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Communist Party officials to “foster a new type of marriage and childbearing culture.”
These norms and beliefs have perpetuated the gendered division of labor in East Asia. The proportion of time spent on domestic and care work is roughly three times more for women than men in China and South Korea, and about five times more in Japan. Table 1 shows that fathers have significantly less parental leave days in all three countries, and men are often unwilling to leave the workforce for an extended period of time for fear of hurting their prospects for promotion. Although Japan’s paternity leave provisions are more generous, only 14 percent of Japanese men actually took paternity leave in 2021. In South Korea, just 4.1 percent of eligible fathers took parental leave in 2022. Econometric evidence shows that the presence of a child in the household has a significantly negative effect on women’s labor hours in China.
The expectation that women must prioritize family over career has in turn begun to discourage them from having children. Nearly 50 percent of Chinese women surveyed in 2023 claimed that their partner barely participated in domestic chores and childrearing. Accordingly, one-fifth of respondents said they had no plans to have a child, while almost 40 percent did not want to have more than one.
Despite policies to promote fertility rates, women in East Asia are increasingly focusing their attention on career development out of a desire for personal autonomy. However, discriminatory attitudes toward gender are just as pervasive in the workplace.
Gender-based Discrimination in the Workplace
In East Asian countries, discriminatory behaviors are prevalent in the recruitment process. In China, one in five national civil service job postings in 2018 explicitly favored men, using phrases like “men only” or “men preferred” in their job descriptions. These postings are motivated by the perceptions that women are unable to fully commit to their jobs and will incur costs on the company by taking maternity leave. Similarly, many companies in Japan and South Korea have been found to deliberately assign lower interview scores to female candidates to exclude them from the hiring process, with one in five candidates in Japan being asked inappropriate questions on family planning during the interview. Due to deep-seated beliefs that women should dedicate more time and effort into the household, they are widely considered as a “lost labor” to employers, expected to exit the workforce after giving birth.
Moreover, the gendered division of labor extends to the workplace in East Asia. Women often find themselves taking on invisible labor in the workplace, including basic administrative tasks, which do not contribute to their career advancement. In South Korea, the norm of female employees undertaking office tasks like preparing coffee for their supervisors or dishwashing persists, and over 60 public financial institutions in 2023 were accused of adopting such discriminatory practices.
In Japan, women are more likely to pursue clerical positions (ippan shoku) instead of managerial career tracks (sogo shoku), primarily because the latter requires overtime work incompatible with their responsibilities for household tasks and childcare. In addition, women consistently receive lower pay than men and are severely underrepresented in management positions. For example, only 14 percent of directors serving on the boards of the 100 most valuable Chinese companies listed on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges are female.
Gender norms also adversely affect men, hindering the overall progress of gender equality. In South Korea, 67 percent of men reported experiences of gender discrimination at work. The most common instances of gender discrimination against men were also centered on the subject of “marriage, childbirth, and childcare,” involving comments like “What is the point of paternity leave for men?” and “Because you’re a man, you should just endure [hardship].” These societal attitudes and gendered beliefs prevent men from seeking a balance between work and family life.
Rethinking Gender-related Policies
In response to persistent gender gaps and falling fertility rates, East Asian countries have adopted a series of policies aimed at incorporating women into the workforce and encouraging them to have children. However, these policies treat women as instruments for promoting economic growth and population growth, without taking the gender-specific challenges that they face into consideration. Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo introduced a package of policies under “Womenomics” to boost female economic participation “for the greater good” and increase fertility rates. By framing women as Japan’s “underutilized resource” rather than autonomous agents capable of making decisions for themselves, these policies fail to address fundamental barriers to female labor force participation, such as the dual-track employment system.
In South Korea, the government unveiled a comprehensive plan in March of this year to increase fertility rates in face of the demographic crisis the country is facing, including policies like “reduced working hours for women during childrearing” and “telecommuting and flexible work for women during childcare.” However, these policies inherently assume women as primary caregivers within the household and fail to tackle the underlying problem of gender inequality. Framing women’s labor as mere extensions of a family planning policy, these policies exacerbate the gendered division of labor.
In 2015, China abolished its one-child policy to reverse its demographic decline, and extended the quota to three children in 2021 when birth rates continued to drop. However, the subsequent extension on maternity leave reinforces employer perceptions that childbirth interrupts women’s careers. The act of assigning a limit to the number of children that each woman is permitted to have assumes that women’s right to reproduce is subject to the revisions of law, rather than part of their fundamental freedom. This is unsurprising given that China’s policymaking process has historically been androcentric – women make up 24.9 percent of the National People’s Congress and only 5.4 percent of the 20th Central Committee. There is not, and never has been, a single woman on the Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of political power in China.
In light of discriminatory gender norms and the double burden that they place on women in East Asia, current policies to improve childcare facilities and support women’s employment are clearly insufficient. Governments must foster an egalitarian culture to counter lingering Confucian ideas, one in which more men are encouraged to take on household and childcare responsibilities. Increasing female labor force participation and fertility rates can promote economic growth and avert the demographic crisis in East Asia, but the empowerment of women and men with the freedom of choice between family and career should be a cause in its own right.