May 26th, 2009

No Room for Sisterhood?


Is There No Room for Sisterhood in Today’s Workplaces?

by James Turnbull, Korea Times, May 22, 2009

In U.S. workplaces, women are primarily bullied by other women rather than by men, the New York Times reported last week, and the news quickly went viral as it busted some long and deeply-held stereotypes about the women’s movement.

In total, 60 percent of bullies in U.S. workplaces are men, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), a national advocacy group. But whereas they tend to target both sexes equally, their female counterparts choose other women as their targets over 70 percent of the time.

These figures were surprising because they arrived in an environment where the glass ceiling remains quite strong

A 2008 census by the nonprofit research group Catalyst, for instance, found that only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 officers and 15.2 percent of directors were women.

On that basis, it had been natural to assume that many women workers identify themselves as members of a repressed group, and consequently are more supportive and nurturing of each other in their working lives than men are.

Yet in reality, as numerous examples provided by the WBI attest to, there is little sense of feminist solidarity in the workplace. Why?

One reason is the record number of working women in the U.S., who are now more numerous than working men for the first time in history, primarily because the recession has hit male-dominated industries.  

Reaching this point has long been predicted, and as women also make up more than 50 percent of management, professional, and related occupations, then the surge in their numbers isn’t the result of them taking low paid and/or irregular work to make ends meet during the recession either.

But ironically this may actually increase pressures on women, as with so many now going after top jobs, yet a variety of discriminatory practices still preventing most from acquiring them, then it is logical for women to perceive female coworkers as competitors rather than as possible allies.

Add the stereotype shared by both sexes that women are less tough and less likely to complain about bullying than men, and it’s a wonder that this gender dimension to bullying in the workplace wasn’t noticed much earlier.

If anything, this competition is likely to be more cut-throat in Korea, where it is primarily women that are losing their jobs. As The Korea Times reported in March for instance, of the 166,000 of Korean 30-somethings had lost their jobs the previous month, only 9000 were men.

That was not necessarily due to discrimination in itself. In a recession, all companies fire their irregular and temporary workers first. But in Korea, a disproportionate number of these are 30-something women, largely due to this group being singled out for firing during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

That was explicitly for discriminatory reasons. The logic was that fathers and husbands would provide for their families or wives respectively. Unfortunately, government and business sentiments have little changed since.

In January, President Lee Myung-bak was quoted as saying that “the most urgent issue on our hands is to create jobs for the heads of households,” and as reported Wednesday, many Korean companies are encouraging pregnant women to resign, or are making their working lives intolerable if they don’t.

Consequently, compared to other OECD member countries Korea comes dead last on many indicators of women’s position in economic life, and it was without exaggeration that a 2007 OECD report described the country as the worst to work in for women.

For example, in addition to extremely long working hours, the wage gap between men and women, which showed slow but steady improvement in the two decades before the Asian financial crisis, has stagnated at women earning roughly 64 percent of what men do ever since.

In these circumstances, it is to be expected that Korea also has one of the lowest women’s workforce participation rates also.

According to the Korea Labor and Society Institute, 41.9 percent of all women aged 25-54 were working in 2006, little changed from an average rate of 41.5 percent for 1995-99, or, indeed, of 38.2 percent in 1980.

The corollary of this is one of the lowest birth rates in the world, for Korean women are naturally choosing to have one child or none at all in order to work. But at least two are required to maintain a population.

There is perhaps no greater indictment of a society than the unwillingness of its members to raise children in it. But with wages being cut, hours being raised, and stress levels rising for everybody during this recession, Korean women are even less likely to want to do so with having to compete so vigorously with other women just to keep their jobs, let alone break the glass ceiling.

James Turnbull is a writer on Korean gender issues and pop culture. He can be reached via his blog at

The link to Turnbull’s longer version of this article: 


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 at 11:04 am and is filed under WBI in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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