Aspiring K-drama and indie film actress Dahyang Jeong says Korean women are under tremendous pressure to be beautiful – so much so that some women even believe they need to get plastic surgery to be competitive in the job market.
“I believe it’s true,” she says, in answer to a question about whether Korean women need to get pretty to get hired. “And those stories have been written in articles in newspapers and online.”
In Korea, people’s appearance is important, a notion that is constantly re-enforced when you walk in Seoul’s many downtown areas, where you are constantly bombarded by ads with beautiful women peddling the latest cosmetics, fashions, perfumes and even local plastic surgery clinics.
And in a country where looks and image are of high importance, some say the prettiest women get hired first. That’s because Korea’s economy is ruled by a handful of chaebol – or conglomerates – where middle aged men sit at the top of an organization of old boys, and with very few women in the upper ranks.
Hiring managers are usually men, and many Koreans say they want to staff their office with the prettiest young female admin assistants. That’s easy to do, as it’s standard practice to place your photo at the upper corner of your resume, giving hiring managers an idea of what a female applicant looks like before they even call her for an interview.
Most hiring managers are men, she said, since women usually cannot climb the ladder, and most drop out of the work force in their early 30s. Much of that is because managers often assume young female employees will eventually quit to have children, so they’re not groomed for management.
Women often hit a wall when they try to climb the corporate ladder, since business decisions are often made at places of entertainment for men, such as room salon, which are high-class brothels. A big part of Korea’s business culture is paying for sex, whether it’s an evening of male bonding with the boss or paying for clients to have sex with expensive escorts in their early 20s (some of the escorts are university students who learn quickly that they can earn more in a night than in two months working a student’s job like being a waitress).
“In Korea, there’s a TV debate program featuring foreigners living in Korea. I had always thought pictures were always included on resumes everywhere in the world,” she told Borderless. “But the show said pictures are not included in people’s resumes in other countries.”
“I was shocked when I heard that,” she says, sitting in a local coffee shop near Taeguk University in Seoul.
“Hearing that, I thought looks are much more important here than in other countries,” she lamented, taking a serious tone and looking straight at me across the table, her fashionable dyed-red hair catching a glimpse of sunlight from the wide window next to her.
When asked whether the prettiest girls always get hired, she says she can’t speak for every case, but told a story of an experiment.
“A social experiment with a hidden camera was conducted on the issue in Korea,” she says. “Two candidates were interviewed for a part-time job. A pretty girl…and a girl with slightly different features.”
“Both went to an interview but the prettier girl was called first,” she says, adding that she believes that a similar situation could happen in the majority of cases.
It may seem ironic that Dahyang, an actress who has played small parts in a number of Korean TV dramas, would express concern about how important it is for women to be beautiful in Korea, since it’s her job to be attractive and fashionable, and she looks the part.
But she described the situation as “just too bad,” and argued that Korean companies should pay less attention to what female applicants look like and more attention to their job skills and how well they answer interview questions.
“Here, your appearance is important. And a lot of what people talk about every day is how people look. Especially in Korea, people are very sensitive about their looks,” she says.
“That’s really too bad,” she says.
“It’s true that your face is one aspect of the good image you portray to others. But it’s also important to see how well-articulated and good their interpersonal skills are,” she says.
“Problems occur when Korean employers hire based on image verses actual competence,” she says.
“We need to improve the quality of our hiring process with in-depth questions,” she says.
Up-and-coming K-model Serin Shin, sitting next to Dahyang, chimes in, saying she’d rather be judged on her actual resume than on her looks.
“You should look at my related work experience (and not just the photo on my resume,” she says.
In Korea, sexual harassment is also a serious problem, and some say that nearly every woman has experienced some sort of sexual harassment at work.
Recently, Korea’s government did a survey, the first of its kind, to try to measure the amount of women who have experienced sexual harassment in the work place. The study found that 80 percent of working Koreans have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and most say there was no recourse. Around 80 percent also say they would just put up with it, and only 1 percent of cases saw any kind of action taken. That’s according to a 2015 survey from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, a Korean government department.
The World Economic Forum says Korea is 115 out of 145 nations that it surveyed on the global gender gap. That is the largest gap of any developed nation in the survey, in spite of Korea being the world’s no. 11 economy by GDP, according to the CIA Fact Book.
Some industries are more abusive than others toward women, such as Korea’s hotel sector, which many say is particularly abusive toward women. Borderless has reported before on the issue, in which women workers are often fondled by managers and cursed out by even low-ranking male employees.
Serin added that men in Korea often expect women to look their best all the time, and treat women badly when young ladies are not looking their best. Tall, with long, jet black hair, she turned heads when walking into the coffee shop to speak with Borderless.
But she says men treat her well when she’s dressed up, like she is today. But when she’s coming from the gym, for example, in sweat pants and her hair a mess, male taxi drivers have in the past taken a curt, rude tone with her and used harsh words.
“This happened to me in a cab. I am not saying that everyone is like this. When I take a cab dressed casually, wearing sweatpants, no makeup and not caring how I look, compared to when I take the time to look good like today, I have been treated differently,” she says.
“The way (male taxi drivers) talk and the words they say about my appearance, it felt bad,” she says.
“I’ve had this bad experience many times,” she says.
Still, the two say they are not in any way man-haters, with Dahyang adding that Korea’s Confucian culture – which is still very influential despite the nation being modern and high tech – causes wives and girlfriends to be respectful of the men in their lives.
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