During her career spanning four decades, Korea’s Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon has become clear on one thing: In the male-dominated societies across Asia, it is still hard for women to land jobs and hold on to them.
Breaking this pattern has been Byun Do-yoon’s primary mission since she took up the ministerial post in March 2008.
Byun said during an interview with The Jakarta Post on Wednesday that although the Gender Equality Ministry was established 20 years ago, Korean society has a long way to go to be truly equal in terms of gender.
The ministry’s function is to protect women’s rights, promote their interests, achieve gender equality and improve their social standing.
Recently, special attention has been paid to nurturing a social environment that ensures women’s safety and helps women achieve employment and self-realization through work–life balance.
Byun’s priority is to help women gain jobs, especially those from low-income and migrant families, out of the belief that employment is essential to improving women’s lot.
For her, the biggest achievement in the campaign for gender equality in Korea is the creation of a gender-sensitive budget system, which aims to support gender equality by ensuring that public spending is distributed equally across society according to the actual needs of men and women.
The system has been incorporated into financial law and, from next year, all government programs will be based on gender impact assessments.
“We have educated and trained government officials, and 25 government agencies have applied this system to 108 state-run projects,” Byun told The Korean Times.
Byun said that the ministry had planned to help about 37,000 women land jobs this year, while also providing counseling and training for about 100,000 female job seekers.
The ministry will also introduce a “Housewife Internship” program, with those who participate in the program for three months to receive 500,000 won (US$400); through this program, about 4,000 married women will be able to earn money to support their families.
“We will continue to help them keep their jobs with comprehensive childcare programs as well,” Byun said.
The ministry has signed contracts with major companies to expand the corporate culture of gender equality in an effort to build a women-friendly environment at workplaces.
“We can’t force companies to treat men and women equally in personnel management,” she said. “But many employers who are free from gender stereotyping realize that they could make more profits by efficiently using female employees. We will promote those companies as good examples.”
Born in Hwanghae province in North Korea in 1947, Byun graduated from Chung-Ang Girl’s High School and obtained a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in labor policy from Chung-Ang University in Seoul.
Since starting her career as a social worker at Gongju Christian Community Center in 1969, Byun spent more than 30 years helping create jobs for male workers and caring for underprivileged women.
She was the director of the Center for Women Workers between 1978 and 1992 and president of the National Council of Women Resources Development Center for three years from 1997.
She served as Seoul Women’s Plaza president between 2002 and 2006. Byun was also secretary-general for Seoul YMCA from 1992 to 1995; she was chairwoman for the organization’s planning department before taking up her ministerial post.
The increasing numbers of international marriages in Korea also came to the attention of the ministry, resulting in several projects including the operation of counseling centers and shelters for migrant women.
The emergency help center, which migrant women who are victims of domestic violence can call anytime, provides legal and medical services in eight languages including English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Thai and Cambodian.
The ministry is expanding support programs for women with disabilities to offer them counseling and employment assistance programs. Centers fighting sexual violence and offering shelter for assault victims will be expanded for underprivileged women.
Her ministry’s programs, however, extend beyond Korean shores, with the ministry being behind the APEC Women’s IT training program, launched in 2003.
Byun was in Jakarta for three days from May 25 to visit an IT training program for Indonesian female government officials, which is part of the APEC program.
The initiative was proposed by Korea in 2001 during the APEC leaders’ meeting to expand access to IT for women and the disabled and to promote women’s rights and interests.
Since 2003, the ministry has been inviting female leaders of APEC countries to Korea for IT training.
The ministry has also designed a program that provides customized IT training in East Asian countries to develop women’s IT capabilities and improve their social standing, with the first pilot project held in Indonesia in 2007. The recent IT training is an improved version of the onsite training, which based upon the result of the pilot project.
“One of the important points in gender equality is women have to be economically self-reliant, and IT skills will be one of the skills most needed in today’s world of employment and commerce,” Byun told the Post. “IT skills are even more important in an archipelagic country like Indonesia.”