Young, female, and ambitious — the glass ceiling in South Korea

The World

SEOUL — Jiyeong Kim, 25, embodies the pinnacle of female ambition in South Korea.

She dreams of making it to the top, and dedicates all of her free time to achieving her goals.

Every day, the attractive coffee shop barista hits the gym for two hours, eats a single meal consisting of a small chicken sandwich, spends an hour and a half putting on makeup and styling her hair, and studies Chinese and English for six hours.

Kim isn’t training to be a runway model or win a beauty pageant. After failing to make the cut eight times, she’s preparing for her ninth bid to enter South Korea’s elite stewardess ranks. It’s a grueling, multi-round process consisting of physical inspections and language fluency tests.

The odds are against her. It’s common for judges to weed out close to 20,000 applicants for a couple of hundred openings each year.

But, Kim explains, “The pay and the opportunities for travel are great — compared to the other jobs for women.” Americans may recall the olden days of the 1960s, when stewardesses were flying sex symbols.

That’s still the case today in South Korea.

The profession is rankling women’s rights groups, who say the cutthroat competition reveals much about the abysmal glass ceiling in the way of female advancement. They argue it’s one of few ways for women to climb the economic ladder in a male-dominated society.

“A flight attendant is considered a good job, with more perks compared to other careers” that are open to women with a bachelor's degree, said Cho-lee Yeoul, a representative of Ilda, a Korean feminist journal. “Many women think it's worth it to starve to get the job.”

Korean Air, the country’s largest airline, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The hiring process isn’t entirely beauty based, but looks play a big part. Korean air carriers, along with other Asian airlines, prefer tall, graceful university graduates, before they hit their late twenties — and explicitly discriminate based on age, a practice that’s illegal in the US.

Plastic surgery is something of a prerequisite in South Korea, the world’s most cosmetically enhanced nation. One in five women go under the knife, according to one estimate.

In the end, the rewards beat the arduous hours and bottom-barrel pay young women can expect elsewhere.

A new flight attendant at a large Korean airline earns around $3,500 a month, with flexible hours and perks.

By comparison, a makeup saleswoman starting her first job in a department store earns about $1,200 a month working 10 or more hours a day, with one day off each week. South Korea’s minimum wage is $4.31 per hour.

Positions like these come with few prospects for rising in the corporate hierarchy.

Part of the dilemma is that the high-tech democracy of South Korea hasn’t relinquished its traditional Confucian deference to men. Not much has changed even though the country elected its first female president in December 2012, and its women are among the most educated in the world.

Korea even lags behind neighbors China and Japan, according to McKinsey, the New York-based consulting firm. About 55 percent of South Korean women participate in the workforce, fewer than in China (74 percent), in Japan (62 percent), and the average in the OECD club of developed countries (65 percent).

Once they have children, many women feel pressured to leave their jobs permanently. If they remain in the workplace, the future doesn’t look promising.

Women hold only 10 percent of managerial positions, 1 percent of board room posts, and earn 39 percent less than their male counterparts, according to McKinsey. That’s the highest gender pay gap in the OECD.

For years, the government hasn’t made much headway sewing up the gender divide. But that could change. Under one current plan, companies could receive financial incentives for building in-house daycares; a new law may also expand child care leave to protect working mothers with children up to age 9. (The current age is 6.)

Analysts say the need to level the playing field is becoming more urgent. South Korea’s population is aging, creating a demographic dearth that will lead to a labor shortage and economic stagnation in the coming years.

More females in the workplace will make the nation more productive, say experts.

But as long as the rigid social customs are in place, many young, educated women continue to see the battle for becoming a stewardess as more satisfying and glamorous than the other paltry options.

“A lot of girls do this job for five years, and then get married,” says Kim, the aspiring flight attendant. “I’m serious about this for a career, but marriage is the choice of many other girls.”