Korea's work-life balance policies for sustainable growth

©Korean government

Of the abundant resources given to mankind, what is the most underused resource of our time? Without a doubt, women! 

The potential of women must be fully tapped if we are to secure a path to sustainable development and address the ever-decreasing working-age population in the post-2015 era. 

Everyone will agree that harnessing the female labour force is essential for sustainable development. In the case of Korea, if by 2030 women’s economic participation rate were to increase to the men’s rate of 2010, the total labour force size would increase by about 10 percentage points in that time, according to the OECD. In addition, evidence from developed countries shows that women’s employment rate, fertility rate and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita are closely correlated. To this effect, since she took office in 2013, Korea’s first female president, Madame Park Geun-hye, has been stressing the importance of creating a society where no social or cultural limitations hinder women’s career development

With its Roadmap to a 70% Employment Rate by 2017, the Korean government puts employment at the top of its agenda for sustainable and stable economic growth. The roadmap underlines the need to maximise the utilisation of the female labour force as the key driver of Korea’s growth engine. Accordingly, the government’s goal is to raise the current employment rate of women from 54.9% to 61.9% by 2017, creating over 1.65 million new jobs for women.

To expand women’s economic participation and increase the female employment rate, the four Rs–recruitment, retaining, restarting and representation–must be well-balanced by creating a career-friendly social environment for women throughout their lives. Recruitment processes must be fair to both genders; retaining a female workforce must be facilitated by policies that prevent disruption in women’s careers; restarting work among women who have left the labour market needs to be eased through appropriate measures; and the representation of women should be enhanced by cultivating more female leaders.

The Park government has successfully lowered barriers to ease women’s entry to the labour market. The next step is to focus on strengthening measures to help women maintain and develop their careers and to reinforce re-employment mechanisms, with the ultimate goal of promoting women leaders globally.

In this respect, work-life balance should first be achieved by women and men, rather than taking a one-sided perspective just for women. The government is promoting this approach, while concentrating on finding practical ways to help workers take full advantage of those work-life balance policies and benefits already available.

Take, for example, the Best Family-Friendly Management programme, in which the government certifies the most family-friendly companies that promote a good work-life balance among their employees, including proper implementation of leave entitlements and flexible workplace arrangements. Companies and organisations with the certification enjoy a wide range of benefits, such as interest rate benefits for bank loans. Since the programme was launched in 2008, the number of certified companies has grown sharply, from 14 initially to 956 in the first quarter of 2015. The government will continue to encourage more organisations, especially local governments and small and medium-sized enterprises, to embrace family-friendly management, and we will support certified companies so that they continue to set an example with their good practices.

To better facilitate the adoption of family-friendly management, two campaigns–Family Day and Father’s Month–have been launched. Every Wednesday is designated as a Family Day in order to encourage the overworked Koreans to finish work on time at least one day a week so that they can spend time with their families. In addition, every last Wednesday is now Culture Day which families can enjoy, thanks to the likes of discounts and free admissions to theatres, shows and exhibitions.

Father’s Month, introduced in October 2014, aims to encourage men to take their parental leave; instead of receiving only 40% of their normal wage in the first month of leave as was the case before, they now receive full pay. In the meantime, the government also subsidises funds for hiring substitute workers to fill in for those on parental leave.

To enhance the delivery of work-life balance programmes, the first Centre for Working Mums and Dads opened in April 2015. The biggest challenge for double-income families is simply finding the time to search for information on the diverse government programmes that are available to help families, such as education courses, advice and other family services. The new centre is open on weekends and late in the evenings for maximum public benefit.

Meanwhile, Women’s Re-employment Centres have developed well, providing comprehensive career services including tailored career counselling, job training, internships, employment liaison and post-employment management. These centres have been instrumental in getting women back to work, particularly after child-rearing. With 10 additional facilities planned this year, a total of 150 centres will soon be in place to help women’s reintegration into the workforce.

The centres are constantly evolving to meet the government’s aim of creating more and better jobs. Some areas are test-launching specialised centres, with some focusing on career development among, say, those in farming, fishing, or various professions. A customised centre may focus exclusively on women in their 30s, who make up over half of the total number of women sidetracked from their career, with a view to enhancing their re-employment and skills.

In the public sector, the government is also taking a lead in advancing the representation of women and breaking glass ceilings. Quotas have been set to raise women’s participation in government committees to 40% and the ratio of women in managerial positions in central government to 15% by 2017. Further efforts are ongoing to promote female leaders through the Academy for Promising Women and the National Female Professionals’ Database.

Thanks to our government’s wide-ranging policy initiatives, the female participation rate in Korea has been consistently growing, from 49.4% of the workforce in 2010 to 51.3% in 2014. Moreover, the participation of prime age women (in their 30s) is clearly on a rising trend, up from 55.3% in 2010 to 58.4% in 2014.

Everyone shares the ideal that the full employment of women and an improved work-life balance are essential for revitalising society and boosting competitiveness. Only when all members of society, regardless of gender or sector, culture or creed, are free of stereotypes and discrimination, can we overcome low birth rates and low growth, and set forth an era of truly sustainable development.

It is my hope that the strong commitment of the readers of the OECD Yearbook will help lead the march towards a gender-equal world.

Korea is vice-chair of the OECD Ministerial Council Meeting 2015


OECD (2012), Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, OECD Publishing.

Visit http://english.mogef.go.kr/index.jsp  

©OECD Yearbook 2015

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