Academic journal article Development and Society

Women's Work and Family Income Inequality in South Korea *

Academic journal article Development and Society

Women's Work and Family Income Inequality in South Korea *

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Introduction

This paper examines the relationship between married women's labor force participation and family income inequality, focusing on the incomes of families with a husband and a wife. As women's labor force participation has increased, their income has begun to affect the distribution of family income more significantly than before. Although the increase in women's labor force participation is considered an index of gender equality, it is unclear whether such participation actually reduces family income inequality as an important part of social inequality. The answer is complex, as the effects of married women's income on family income inequality vary according to mediating factors such as married women's human capital, the differential rate of wives' labor force participation across husbands' income levels and the level of wives' incomes.

Compared with industrialized countries in the West, the rate of women's labor force participation in South Korea is still very low. However, it has grown slowly and steadily, except for the year after financial crisis in 1997, from 39.3% in 1970 to 47.1% in 1991 and 49.7% in 2011 (Lee and Eun 2005; NSO 2012). As their level of education has increased, more women have chosen to work after graduating from college. In 2009, the rate of women's entrance into college was 82.4% of high-school graduates, surpassing that of their male counterparts. A diminishing gender wage gap has also facilitated women's participation in employment and paid work. The wage gap between men and women decreased from 37.1% in 2000 to 36% in 2010 (KWDI 2010, pp. 285-286). Although this is not a big change, it is significant in the long run. In short, there have been gradual and steady social changes facilitating the transition of women from college into the labor market.

The rise in female labor has largely been the result of an increase in married women's labor force participation. Married women are more likely than unmarried women to participate in the labor force. As the level of married women's education increases and the number of children they have decreases, more married women are going to work. In contrast, young women's labor force participation has decreased because they are entering higher education. Thus, the rise in mostly unmarried young women's enrollment in colleges and universities has resulted in a decrease in their labor force participation.

What effect has the rise in married women's labor force participation had on family income inequality? Does a married woman's income reduce family income inequality, or reinforce her husband's income inequality? The rise in the proportion of dual-earner families has raised important questions about the role that married women's work plays in family income inequality. Social change toward gender equality has clearly been an irreversible trend since the mid-20th century. However, it does not necessarily reduce social inequality due to the complex institutional mediation between an individual's income from work and family income. For example, family income inequality can be affected by trends in partner choice, the rate of the wife's participation in the labor market and the level of the wife's income. The husband's income, in turn, directly affects the influence that the wife's income has on the family income. If the wives of husbands with lower incomes are more likely to participate in paid work than the wives of husbands with higher incomes, then the wives' labor force participation tends to reduce the husbands' income inequality. This is called the "leveling effect" of women's labor force participation (Treas 1983, 1987; Maxwell 1990).

However, the rise in women's labor force participation has been accompanied by a new tendency for more educated women to participate in employment and paid work. Increases in the level of women's education have resulted in more employment than ever before, especially in careers with prevalent meritocracy reflected in remuneration and promotion. …

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