Sep 072011
Sexual equality symbol

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Lee Bok-hui used to wonder what happened to all the leftover stones she saw lying around construction sites.

Now she knows exactly where a percentage of those leftovers go — into an eco-friendly inflammable sheeting-material used to reinforce electrical outlets — which Lee she invented specifically to reuse that construction site waste.

Lee debuted her invention at the Korea International Women’s Invention Exposition in May, where she won second place in the expo’s title prize.

“I never could imagine that I would win the prize, but I always stood by my idea and knew it was good for the future,” Lee said in an interview.

Lee is among the small number of Korean women who are doing something not usual in the male-centric Korean business world — taking their careers into their own hands through invention. And surprisingly, many of these new inventors are housewives.

South Korea is one of the top 20 richest economies worldwide. But according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index 2010 report, Korea’s gender equality only ranks 104 out of 134 countries surveyed, near the bottom with developing African countries and Middle East states with strict rules governing women’s rights.

In comparison, Iceland ranks No. 1, with the United States at 19 and the Philippines at 9. Korean women have only half the chance as Korean men at economic participation, opportunity as well as wage equality. This is in stark contrast to the almost equal percentages of women and men getting university degrees.

“The Korean cultural tradition that goes back hundreds, thousands of years, is that women didn’t need to work,” said Paik Seung-han, a senior vice president at SK Networks, a branch of one of the largest Korean conglomerates.

“But over the past 20 years this tradition has gradually changed,” said Paik, whose corporate culture division boasts 30 percent women, many of them in general manager positions.

However, even if women do achieve some success in the business world, it can be difficult to hold on to those roles after they marry and have children because of deeply instilled cultural traditions. This could also account for the rise in the marriage age and lower birthrates in the past decade.

Former corporate recruiter Bailey Park said she knew two high-level female managers in well-known corporations.

“One was a 40-something-year-old single lady and another one was postponing having kids until she reached at least a mid-level position in the company,” Park said.

“The Korean business world is very competitive. There is no 9-to-5, no weekends,” said Paik, conceding that it’s hard for new mothers to keep the grueling work hours.

Because of the strong work ethic and cultural tradition, many career women do leave their jobs after marriage and children. Since Korean women are highly educated, it might not be very fulfilling for them to see their educations go toward homemaking.

Enter the Korean Women’s Inventors Association to lend a guiding hand. The organization has shown housewives that they can still be active in the business world through invention. More than 4,000 women are now members and half of the female patent-holders are housewives, according to KWIA.

Koreans are avid inventors in any case and rank fourth worldwide for registering the largest number of international patent applications, according to the Korean Intellectual Property Office‘s latest figures. And although the percentage of females among all patent applicants is only around 13 percent, this number has doubled since 2005.

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