According to a 2017 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the gender pay gap in South Korea is the highest among its 37 member countries. Working women earn almost 40 percent less than men, and many stop working when they have children, often under pressure from their families and the workplace.
Other countries in the region, including Japan – which also has an aging population and low birth rate – have large gender disparities, especially when it comes to pregnancy. In Japan, the term “matahara” (short for harassment during childbirth) spread when allegations of workplace harassment of a woman after giving birth were heard by the country’s Supreme Court in 2014.
These declining populations pose a threat to the economies of countries, which makes it all the more important that governments exercise caution in inducing women to have children.
Last year, South Korea’s population declined for the first time in history, falling by nearly 21,000. Births fell by more than 10.5% and deaths increased by 3%. The Home and Security Ministry acknowledged the alarming implications, saying that “against a backdrop of rapidly declining birth rates, the government must undertake fundamental changes in its relevant policies.”
While the Seoul government may have fumbled in its advice, the backlash, some say, has proven attitudes are changing.
“This is outdated advice,” said Adele Vitale, an Italian expatriate and born doula who has lived in Busan, a port city on the country’s southeast coast, for a decade.
Ms Vitale, who works mainly with foreign women married to Korean men, said that although Korean society has traditionally viewed pregnant women as “incapable”, it has increasingly seen their husbands adopt more egalitarian views on childbirth and education of children.
“Family dynamics are changing,” she says. “Women are no longer willing to be treated this way.”