Seoul – Kook Seung-hyun, pregnant and working full-time in Seoul, must juggle three demanding roles to meet the traditional family expectations and financial realities of modern Korea.
“Korean women have to worry not only about household chores and childcare but bread-winning. That’s so sad,” said the 30-year-old financial consultant, one of many women in the G20 who cite balancing home and work as their major workplace challenge.
A poll of more than 9 500 women by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation found work-life balance was the top work issue concerning women, flagged by 44 percent.
Women in Russia and four of five Asian countries in the G20 – South Korea, India, China and Japan – said it was the most challenging issue they faced in the workplace.
Women in a fifth Asian nation, Indonesia, said flexible working was their major concern in the poll released on Tuesday.
Kook said as a soon-to-be working mother, she is worried about negotiating the fine line between family obligations and a job that requires long hours with little flexibility.
“If women can’t resettle, then we can get a bad performance review, then it can negatively affect promotion, then we are pushed to quit the job. It is a vicious cycle,” Kook told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She and her husband need two salaries to meet the high costs of living in South Korea’s capital, she added.
Cultural expectations, a shortage of affordable, quality childcare and a lack of flexible working hours are largely to blame for women feeling torn, experts say.
Work-life balance must be addressed if G20 leaders are to meet their target of reducing the gap in labour force participation rates between men and women by 25 percent by 2025. This would bring more than 100 million women into the workforce, the G20 said at last year’s meeting in Brisbane.
Russia, straddling Europe and Asia, topped the G20 list when it came to voicing concerns over work-life balance, with 60 percent of women citing it as the major issue at work in the survey conducted by international polling firm Ipsos MORI.
In India, it was 57 percent of women, followed by South Korea at 51 percent, China at 48 percent and Japan 39 percent.
In Indonesia 41 percent of women ranked flexible working as the key challenge with 40 percent signaling work-life balance.
“India, South Korea, China and Indonesia – each country has high expectations of women even if they’re working women or women running a business,” said Véronique Salze-Lozac’h, chief economist at the Asia Foundation.
“They are the main caretakers for children, but also sometimes for their parents or the parents of their spouse. There is a lot of demand on the time and energy of women in these countries.”
Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that employees in South Korea and Japan work some of the longest hours.
An added source of stress for women in some Asian nations is the expectation that they should coach their children through school and exams and are responsible for their children’s success in highly competitive environments, experts said.
With one of highest female employment rates in the world, China is often held up as a model for women in Asia.
In 2014, 70 percent of China’s women were in the workforce, compared with 55 percent in South Korea and 27 percent in India, OECD data shows.
A quarter of China’s entrepreneurs are women, according to the Asia Foundation, and half of the world’s female billionaires who made their own fortunes are Chinese, the Hurun Report says.
Yet many women, especially among China’s 269 million migrant workers, are forced to sacrifice family life to earn an income.
“If you look at some of these women who have been migrating from their village to big towns where they have factories, they very often have to leave their children behind to be taken care of by the grandparents,” said Salze-Lozac’h.
Dongfang Fu, who is married with two small children, said taking time to care for her family put her at a disadvantage.
“They will blame you for not making money. You will be devalued and discarded,” said Fu, 30, from Ningbo, in China’s eastern Zhejiang province.
Stigma of flexi-work
A few initiatives are being introduced as business leaders recognise the need to keep women in the workforce, particularly in economies with falling birth rates and aging populations.
For example, Unilever India is one of the multinationals to have introduced on-site creches for its staff.
There are signs the culture in Japan is changing too, says Deborah Gillis, chief executive officer of Catalyst, a research and advisory group focusing on women and business.
Gillis, who recently visited Japan, said one business leader there spoke of dropping a policy of providing staff who work early or late with breakfast and dinner.
“This policy, however well-intentioned it may have been, was reinforcing those long hours and face time norms that was inconsistent with the company’s values in creating a workplace where women could be successful,” she said.
The survey was carried out online by Ipsos Global @dvisor from July 24 to August 7 and face-to-face in South Africa and Indonesia from August 6 to August 25. Data are weighted to match the population profile of each country and the margin of error between two country sample sizes of 500 is about 6 percent at the 95 percent confidence interval.