This article, initially published on the OECD Forum Network on October 19th, 2021, is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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When I started my business in 1999, there were not many female entrepreneurs in Korea, especially in the appliance business. At the time, I was determined to invent an eco-friendly solution to the centuries-old tradition of women having to be on their knees to scrub the floor: the steam cleaner.
In the era of rocket science, I thought it would be a piece of cake to develop one, not knowing what I was up against. Let alone the technical aspect of the development, the fact that I was a woman was an even bigger problem. It was impossible to find engineers to work with me—or even speak with a woman. It was impossible to convince people that I was not a “trouser CEO” fronting my husband, but a real one leading the business. So, after three years of hard work and financial difficulties, I was finally ready to launch the product.
Imagining people would just rush to buy my product, I didn’t know sales and distribution are even harder than research and development. At the time even lingerie department merchandisers were men, let alone the appliance department. They would say “A steam cleaner? Why would anyone buy a steam cleaner when there are vacuum cleaners?” I would explain how women had to sweep and mop, and how we desperately needed a steam cleaner on top of a vacuum cleaner because we lived barefoot on the ondol floor where we eat, sleep, and play all day. We have pretty much everything we need for homemakers like washers and cookers but there still isn’t a solution for mopping! Women still have to be on their hands and knees to clean the floor! After 30 minutes of my pitching, the guy would still say, “Why would anyone buy a steam cleaner when there are vacuum cleaners?” Obviously his mind was wondering somewhere else and there goes my pitching down the drain!
I won’t go into details of all the horror stories that I had to encounter and overcome in getting the business successful, but rather discuss how cultures and systems can change.
Once the product hit the market homemakers loved it, and the compliment that I cherish the most is from a sociology professor who said, “After the western kitchen, that allowed Korean men to come into the kitchen naturally, you are the biggest contributor to women’s liberation and gender equality as men started cleaning!”
Although Korea has improved, it has always competed with Japan to be the latest number one in terms of gender equality statistics among OECD countries. The Japanese government’s womenomics policy, however, changed the spectrum over the past few years, making it clear that Korea still has much progress to accomplish.
Five years ago, I was invited to set up the Women Corporate Directors Korea chapter, a global organisation that supports gender diversity in boardrooms. I was able to find women who shared my vision to help younger generations to become successful without going through what we had to go through. All being on corporate boards, they were cream of the crop in the Korean society, and we came together for the common goal.
One of our first objectives was to mandate corporations to have at least 30% women on their board through the national assembly’s legislative system. It is critical to have female representation in the highest business decision-making circles for gender equality at workplaces.
With all the power and network our members had, though, I didn’t imagine it would be so hard. After over two years of struggle and dedication, the law finally passed in 2020. “It is recommended [not required] that public corporations with assets of over USD 2 billion [which was less than hundred companies at the time] have at least one member of a different gender with a grace period of two years”.
With numerous revisions and setbacks there was only this skeleton left—but we were thrilled! We have already seen the numbers jump from a mere 3% to 9% female representation on public corporate boards, and we hope to see more increase in the coming years.
Cultures and systems don’t change by themselves, but with the right leadership and vision changes are possible!
Find out more about the OECD's focus on an Inclusive Recovery and a Deepdive on Gender Equality
|Tackling COVID-19||Gender Equality||CEO Activism||Entrepreneurship|
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