Oxford Debate: 'Patriarchy Is Everywhere, the Big Problem Is Institutions'
Motion: Women in Japan and South Korea Need Quotas to Advance
In this Oxford Debate we are debating what quotas can do to remove the big hurdles for women in the case of Japan and South Korea. With Pallavi Aiyar, Se-Woong Koo, Young-Im Lee, and Satona Suzuki.
Our key takeaways:
Satona Suzuki argued, that Japan is a G7 member with the third largest economy in the world, yet female representation is an utter disaster. Societal expectations and the image of women in it have real effects, such as the fact that even today 70% of women in their 20ies and 30ies want their partners or husbands to be bread winners. And in 2018, a prominent medical school rigged entrance exam scores to favor male students, because female doctors ‘tend to quit after having families anyway.’
In short: Sure, gender quotas are controversial and may not be perfect, but gender inequality is no longer sustainable and Japan needs to address it urgently or it can’t claim its place as a world leading democratic power.
Young-Im Lee explained the different kinds of South Korea's gender quota in the National Assembly elections: 30% of candidates presented by a party for the seats elected on the district level should be women – 80% of the parliament is elected this way, it also is seen as the more prestigious way – and 50% of candidates of a party being elected on the national level should be women. Not only is the numerical outcome of these quotas limited by design, the quotas are also not enforced but only recommended. Not once have parties complied with the 30% candidate quota since its introduction, 20 years ago. Quotas in South Korea have shown very limited impact and a lot has to happen at once to advance and empower women, including changing political parties discriminatory behaviors and gendered expectations of women in society and politics – beyond just adopting quotas.
In short: The culture of patriarchy is everywhere, the big problem is institutions. It’s not about the culture of the general population but about the gatekeepers, those who have power in politics, in the economy, and the institutions.
Se-Woong Koo stayed with the example of South Korea: 19% of legislators in South Korea are women, less than 10% of women are senior researchers with state funded think tanks. And a mere 20% in the countries’ 30 biggest firms are women. The earnings gap between South Korean men and women is around 30% – that’s double the OECD average. This reality is hard to ignore – inequality in South Korea is real and measures must be taken at the top. The newly introduced quota of one mandatory female board member for publicly traded companies, funded with assets more than $1.6 billion, effective as of January 2022, has already proven to be beneficial.
In short: Quotas, when they’re designed well can be a clear solution. And quotas aren’t only for women: South Korea has a quota when it comes to exams for selecting public servants – and interestingly, men benefit more than women because their performance tends to be worse than the performance of women.
Pallavi Aiyar concluded with her statement: In Japan, women exceed the rate of labor force participation of women in most countries around the world – even in the United States. The problem for women in Japan is not that they do not work but the kind of work they do. No one does argue that gender inequality does not exist in Japan but there is one problem that is particularly acute in Japan: the general habit of overwork that penalizes flexibility and rewards time spent at the workplace. There is an almost sacred reverence for hard work built into the company culture in Japan. It borders on the impossible to balance the demands of raising children with work norms that are common in Japan.
In short: Quotas would do nothing to address the fundamental problem of company culture in Japan, at best, they would set up a false dichotomy: an illusion of choice that a woman can choose to be a business executive or a politician, no one is preventing her from it. But this is a false choice, because it only reserves some of the available work options for women. And we need to expand those options: equal pay, paternity leave, workplace flexibility – these are the things that will truly help women.
Women in Japan and South Korea need quotas to advance
Arguing in favor of the motion:
Se-Woong Koo is founder of Korea Exposé, an independent media outlet that operated from 2014 to 2019 with a focus on the Korean Peninsula. During that time he contributed regularly to The New York Times Opinion Section, Al Jazeera and the BBC World Service and became known as a leading commentator on contemporary Korea. Before joining the media world, Koo earned his PhD from Stanford University for a dissertation examining the intersection of politics and religion in modern Korea. He was a postdoctoral research fellow at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, France, from 2012 to 2013; and he taught at the Asian University for Women and at Yale University where he was Henry Hart Rice Foundation Faculty Fellow and Lecturer. Koo is currently at work on a book about contemporary South Korean society.
Satona Suzuki is a lecturer in Advanced Japanese and Modern Japanese History at SOAS University of London. Having been trained as a historian at the Department of History at SOAS, her main interests are Japanese modernity, imperialism, militarism, and politics and religion (Buddhism) in the imperial era. She is especially interested in exploring how Meiji Japan was both the object of imperialism and itself an imperial power. As the rise of modern Japan contributed to shaping the world of imperialism from the late nineteenth century onwards and continues to affect geopolitics and diplomacy in East Asia today, she is keen to connect ‘then’ and ‘now’ in the hope of contributing to the resolution of the postcolonial impasse.
Arguing against the motion:
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning journalist, who has worked as a foreign correspondent for over two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. She is Associate Editor of The Globalist and writes a weekly substack newsletter on global culture, The Global Jigsaw. Her latest book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. Pallavi is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and has served on the WEF's Global Council on the Future of Media and Entertainment. She is the author of several books including the China-memoir, Smoke and Mirrors, the novels, Chinese Whiskers and Jakarta Tails, and an exploration of contemporary Europe's challenges, New Old World. Pallavi was a Reuters Fellow at Oxford University and is the youngest winner of the Prem Bhatia memorial prize for political reporting for her dispatches from China. She is currently based in Madrid.
Young-Im Lee is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at California State University, Sacramento, where she teaches Gender Politics and East Asian politics. Her research primarily focuses on the effectiveness of gender quotas in elections. She also studies gender and presidential elections in South Korea and Taiwan, both of which have elected female presidents. Her current research focuses on how gender stereotypes played a role in the impeachment and conviction of South Korea's first female president Park Geun-Hye in 2017.
About Oxford Debates
The Oxford Debates at Asia Society Switzerland are a format to address ‘big’ questions that have no one answer or solution but are inviting many conflicting views. Four renowned experts in the field form teams of two, one team arguing for the motion, the other against it.
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