It’s Not Rocket Science: Women need to be represented in business

Cultures and systems have to change if women are to get the opportunities they deserve to be on corporate boards. Banner image: Shutterstock/2p2play

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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 didnt 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 isnt 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 wont 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 governments womenomics policy, however, changed the spectrum over the past few years, making it clear that Korea still has much progress to accomplish. 

More on the Forum Network: My Wonderful Memories of the OECD by Wonki Min, President, New York State University, Korea

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 didnt 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!

Visit the new OECD Korea Digital Hub for data and insights celebrating its 25th anniversary as an OECD member country

Visit the new OECD Korea Digital Hub for data and insights celebrating its 25th anniversary as an OECD member country

Find out more about the OECD's Focus on an inclusive recovery and a deepdive on gender

A screenshot of the Focus on the an inclusive recovery page of the OECD's online COVID-19 Hub

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Romi Haan

President and CEO, Haan Corporation

Innovative. Driven. Entrepreneurial. Relentless. Creative. Courageous. Forward-thinking. These are just some of Romi Haan’s attributes as the founder of a multi-national company that produces a wide array of household and beauty products. From a young Korean housewife and mother to being named one of The Wall Street Journal’s “Top 50 Women to Watch” after just one year in the U.S., this successful businesswoman continues to garner attention around the world. Her cutting-edge  products have been featured on The Today Show and other national outlets, while Romi is frequently asked to appear on influential panels such as the APEC Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit moderated by Tina Brown and Forbes Asia’s Power Business Women Forum in Singapore. In 2012, Romi was named one of “150 Fearless Women” by The Daily Beast-Newsweek, and one of “Asia’s 50 Power Businesswomen” by Forbes.

In a culture where for generations before her, women did not launch businesses on their own, Romi started the HAAN Corporation in Seoul, Korea, with the mission to free homemakers from the laborious chore of floor cleaning. Since creating the company’s first effective and easy-to-use steam cleaning products, she has grown HAAN Corporation to 300 employees and added new lines that include garment and travel steamers, home appliances, cookware, beauty and cosmetic products.

With offices in Korea, China and the United States, and distribution of its products to more than 10 countries worldwide, HAAN Corporation continues to look for new ways to make consumers lives easier, healthier and more sustainable while remaining synonymous with innovation.