Korea’s Gender Wage Gap and Higher Education


While South Korea has had one of the fastest-growing economies in recent history, it also has a considerably high gender wage gap. This goes as far as ranking it the least equal country in the OECD’s table at a gender wage gap of 32,48 per cent (OECD, 2021). With that, Korea is 9 per cent ahead of the second least equal paying country, namely Japan, and 19,59 per cent higher than the OECD’s total (OECD, 2021).

How did the gender wage gap come about?

This is a highly complex question to answer. However, a look at Confucian tradition’s impact on Korean society might put the contemporary gender wage gap into a better context.

In the Confucian tradition that Korea adopted and adapted around the Silla period (although it did not always have the same degree of impact on society), women are usually placed in an obedience relation towards their male family members, as well as being associated with reproductive labour.

Looking at how this transferred into more recent history, Han and Chun write:

Neoliberal economic policies that promoted the male breadwinner ideal intensified discriminatory employment practices both before and after the 1997-98 Asian debt crisis, including the disproportionate recruitment of women into low-paid, precarious (pijongkyujik) jobs.

(Han & Chun, 2014, p. 247, emphasis in original)

Due to the prevalence of Confucian norms, women were now expected to take on the extended workload of participating both in reproductive labour and paid labour (see e.g. Ho, 2020, p. 287).

While there is more to add to the story, this should already show that women have a competitive disadvantage. When living in a capitalist society and being ascribed to a not financially valued task, the person who can focus more on paid labour has a competitive edge in comparison.

Can this be changed through more equal education?
Here it becomes even more tricky than before. One might assume that education is a lever to change the gender pay gap. However, evidence suggests that the reasons for unequal pay and the availability of jobs for women in contemporary Korean society are more deeply rooted.

While there will be a more in-depth article on the Korean education system, one can for now look at the gender distribution between regular- and non-regular jobs in Korea.

As the OECD writes:

Women are over-represented in low-wage employment: 37% of women working full-time are in low paid employment compared to 15% of men; and 30% of mothers and 12% of fathers are in non-regular employment. Non-regular jobs do not always provide basic social security coverage, exacerbating the vulnerability of those in non-regular employment […].

(OECD, 2019, p. 75)

This might imply that it only takes higher participation of women in higher education in order to lift them from low-wage jobs to high-wage jobs. However, even without looking at universities’ enrollment numbers, one can see that a lack of education is not the reason.

As the OECD report further shows: “[…] almost one-third of the non-regular workers had completed tertiary education […]” (OECD, 2019, p. 81).

For anecdotal evidence on this topic, one can refer to both the novel and film “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982”. In both versions of the story by Cho Nam-Joo, the fictional case of Kim Jiyoung searching for a job while taking care of her daughter gets depicted. She finds a small shop searching for a mother to work behind the counter to sell their products. Kim Jiyoung’s conversation with the then quitting mover goes as follows:

[Kim Jiyoung:] ‘Aren’t you supposed to sign a contract and receive benefits after two years?’ [The working mother at the ice cream shop:] ‘Oh, boy. You don’t know anything about part-time work, do you? There are no part-time jobs where you sign a contract and get benefits. Start work tomorrow. Yes, sir. It’s like that. You get a verbal agreement, start working, they pay you sometimes through your bank account, sometimes through your husband’s bank account. My employer was kind enough to offer me a small severance since I had worked here for a long time.’ […] Jiyoung said she’d discuss it with her husband, and was about to leave when the lady said, ‘I have a college degree, too, you know.’

(N.-J. Cho, 2016/2020, p. 149, emphasis in original)

What follows from all of this?

The article shows that there is a significant gender wage gap, while the reason thereof does not reasonably explain by a lack of education. Rather oppositely, the fact that women are over-represented in low-paying jobs despite many having finished tertiary education shows a strong correlation between gender and available work.


  • Cho, N.‑J. (2020). Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 ((J. Chang, Trans.)). Scribner. (Original work published 2016)
  • Han, J. H. J., & Chun, J. J. (2014). Introduction: Gender and Politics in Contemporary Korea. The Journal of Korean Studies (1979-), 19(2), 245–255. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43923271
  • Ho, J.‑H. (2020). Gender Role Attitudes and Depressive Symptoms of the Mother-Daughter Dyad in Korea. Journal of Asian Sociology, 49(3), 281–304. https://doi.org/10.2307/26940211
  • OECD. (2019). Rejuvenating Korea: Policies for a changing society. OECD Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1787/c5eed747-en
  • OECD. (2021). Gender wage gap (indicator). https://data.oecd.org/earnwage/gender-wage-gap.htm

Last Updated on 29 March 2022 by The Korean Context

By Miro Leon Bucher

Miro Leon Bucher is a graduate student in Social- and Cultural Anthropology and Philosophy at the University of Cologne. His research mainly focuses on the impact of Confucianism on contemporary gender issues in urban South Korea.

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