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What do South Korean women really want?

Seoul, South Korea, is touting its 'new paradigm' for a women-friendly city that improves life from the workplace to the washroom and makes Seoul the happiest place in the world. Some women are skeptical.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / October 27, 2009

Seoul, South Korea

Suddenly, this sprawling metropolis of approximately 10 million people is advertising itself as "women friendly" – and that's not a come-on to the millions of men for whom the term might have quite another connotation.

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In a culture where men dominate offices and women by tradition are relegated to home and family (or bars and brothels), Seoul's metropolitan government has laid out its "visions and challenges" in a dozen categories ranging from "women-friendly restroom" to "women-friendly workplace."

"We have developed a new paradigm for urban policy, a women-friendly policy," is the bold claim of the city's deputy mayor, Ra Jin-goo, who happens to be a man but isn't letting that detail interfere with his sense of mission. "For the first time, we have introduced women-friendly policies in all areas of design."

Mr. Ra, at a forum sponsored by the city that drew several hundred women from dozens of foreign countries as well as Korea, said his government had established "a women-friendly matrix" and wants "to make certain we do not leave any loophole behind."

Women have learned to be skeptical

For all the fine words, however, Korean women tend to view the plans with skepticism, observing that most of them are not only unfulfilled but hidden from view except in showcase projects.

"Personally I don't know where those 'women-friendly' places are," says one Korean woman working in an office near city hall. "I never see them."

Women ask whether Korean culture can ever shed its macho image and wonder if Seoul's mayor, Oh Se-hoon, has come up with the program in a bid for the female vote if he runs for president in 2012.

"Women's rights are talked about mostly by activists," says Shin Hei-soo, a professor at Ewha Woman's University, whose 10,000 students make it the world's largest all-female institution of higher learning. "Of course, there is the political ambition of Mayor Oh. And there are different perceptions between what men see and what women want."

In fact, the role of women outside the home has increased immensely over the past century – and especially since the Korean War. Women fill offices and campuses and have come to assume certain managerial positions – though many are just as likely to quit their jobs after getting married.

The figures suggest the problems.

"Women get 64 percent, on average, of what men earn for the same job," says Ms. Shin, and 300,000 women in this country of 48 million are estimated to work in hostess bars, massage parlors, and "barbershops," despite much-publicized campaigns to get rid of red-light districts.

Lee Ji-won, international coordinator at the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family, questions whether a law passed three years ago to protect the rights of women is making much difference.

"Institutionally, we have the relevant law," she says, "but in our daily life the pattern is not really changed." She says the law "protects women from sexual violence and discrimination," but for many women the right to work means they really have two jobs.

"We have to work in the labor force," says Ms. Lee, "but traditionally we have the same roles as daughters and mothers, cooking and cleaning and taking care of the home."

Still, Seoul officials seem dead serious about addressing women's concerns when it comes to everyday issues like restrooms and parking areas.