Korea Inc’s paid sex culture is one reason why women can’t move up the corporate ladder

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Seoul business people crossing street Photo Credit: Borderless News Online

In Korea, women make around 40 percent less than money than men, and almost never make it to the top of the corporate ladder.

Some of this is simply because many women drop out of the workforce to have children — a full time, 24 hour, 7-day-a-week jobs in Korea. But there are other reasons why women can’t climb the ladder — one of the biggest being the widespread practice of company men buying sex.

Buying sex is a huge part of Korea’s business culture — so much so that Korea could be called a one of the world’s sex capitals — in terms of a huge supply and even bigger demand.

Prostitution is everywhere — it’s just kept hidden. While it’s rare to see women selling themselves on the street, the opportunity to buy sex is everywhere. There are massage shops where one can pay the masseuse extra for sex; hostess bars where women will pour drinks for male clients, and then sleep with them at the end of the night for a good tip; and high-class escort bars called “room salon,” where sometimes women line up in front of customers wearing numbers, and men just tell the manager which number they want.

These are places of male bonding for many company men. In Korean companies, people don’t always move up based on competence. Rather, often — but not always — they move up based on trust.

Trust is established through shared personal experiences with the boss and the team. And the preferred shared experience is heading out with the team to a special nore bang, or kareoke bar, where women are paid to sing with, drink with, and at the end of the evening have sex with clients.

Often the company picks up the tab, and even the chaebol, or conglomerates, that rule Korea’s economy and sell products worldwide, provide funds. That’s because they have entertainment budgets. The funds are supposed to be used to take clients or the team out to dinner. But often they are used for sex. Many establishments that sell sex to corporate clients provide receipts that appear as if the establishment is a restaurant or bar. That way, the company’s accounting department can reimburse these boys nights out.

It varies from company to company, but there are some companies and departments where not attending such after work parties will make you an outsider. And outsiders, even those with the most skills and ability, don’t get promoted.

Much of this also goes back to Confucianism. Traditionally, Korea has always been about the group, common in countries where Confucian thinking is strong. Companies work in groups, people tend to socialize in large groups. Not being part of the group will just cause people to forget about you.

Women are obviously not welcome in an establishment where other women are selling sex, and few women would be comfortable in such an environment. That’s a major reason why many Korean women find it nearly impossible to move up the ladder at work. While this doesn’t happen at all companies, it’s still widespread.

Another factor that makes it tough for women is that male hiring managers — most hiring managers are men — tend to call the prettiest women for interviews, many Koreans say. That may shut out less attractive but more qualified female applicants — the type that would have the ability to climb into upper management.

Choosing applicants according to looks is easy to do, since placing one’s photo on a resume is standard procedure in Korea’s job application process. That allows male hiring managers on the prowl to quickly sift through and find the best looking female applicants, some Koreans say.

There’s also the much-reported problem of the work environment, where hours are not flexible and you leave the office when the boss leaves. Period. That makes it difficult to leave work in time to cook dinner and pick up kids from school.

That forces many women to choose between career and having children.

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