Today is International Women’s Day, so with that in mind, there is some disturbing news concerning women’s rights in Korea, focusing on the nursing profession. Last week Ko Jin Hee, a Donga University student discovered a worrying trend in Korea’s hospitals about the treatment of nurses. A survey of 347 nurses found that 55% of them had been sexually harassed or abused at work and if they had been in the profession for between 5-10 years this figure went up to 70%. The principle offenders were doctors but also other male hospital staff, and also patients. This story was published on the Korea Times website on only a minor page and was first brought to my attention here.
My reaction was one of shock and disgust, especially because my wife had been a nurse in Korea before she gave it up – partly on my advice – because of the stresses and strains of the job. My short overview of what it is like to be a nurse in South Korea would read something like this; over-worked, under-paid, under-appreciated, under-respected, and mistreated and details of some of this can be read in my previous Asiapundits article on ‘Bullying in South Korea.’
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the figures of this, admittedly small, study because my wife had told me stories of her own hospital that had me more than a little concerned. I was told of some serious cases of sexual harassment of her work colleagues by some doctors as well as some more minor cases involving her. She said that doctors would test the water with nurses by brushing past their breasts (accidently on-purpose) while they were working or pinching certain areas playfully. If the nurses were polite and not too shocked and outraged (most of them try to ignore such things), they could explore the limits a little further and it was a guarantee that those nurses would be sitting next to them at the rowdy staff dinners and be forced to drink with them, and I think we can all imagine the reason why. My wife was shunned at these dinners and told to sit on the pregnant women table and drink Coca-Cola in a rather patronizing fashion, she didn’t mind as she knew what they were up to but she wondered if some of the unfair treatment she received at work might have resulted from not amusing the doctors as much as she could have.
Doctors in Korea can be especially big-headed in my experience, and they elevate themselves to an almost god-like status, especially if they are men, which most of them are. My wife used to tell me that they took liberties in almost all areas in her hospital and had a ‘doctors only’ staff room about 5 times the size of the nurse’s room with ultra-expensive facilities. The nurses had a tiny room with almost nothing, so small in fact that they had to sit on the floor outside when they were on a break together. Nurses also do regular overtime without pay and receiving verbal abuse, and sometimes minor physical abuse, is an accepted part of their positions. There is a clear message that the hospitals are making and this is that nurses are simply not a valued and respected part of the workforce, only the doctors are.
This and the double-whammy effect of Korean respect culture mean that nurses are incredibly vulnerable to mistreatment. The culture teaches them to respect age, authority, and maleness, all of which Korean doctors have and all of which nurses have not. Therefore, when a doctor steps out of line it appears to be very difficult to get something done about it and young women are unlikely to have the courage to stand up for themselves, which is precisely what is needed. Nurses need to stand together and then maybe they might just have some power to make some changes. Unfortunately, the nurses union in Korea does not seem to provide any assistance in this department – or any other according to my wife – except for taking some money out of nurses salaries every month. The attitude of nurses toward each other is also rather bizarre. They seem more interested in enforcing their status and getting one-up on each other instead of working together to make all of their working lives more tolerable. They actually do most of the hard work for their superiors when it comes to keeping everybody in their place and dissuading complaints against bad work practices or misconduct by their superiors against them.
The Need for Further Investigation
The figures on sexual harassment and abuse from this small study seem extreme, so extreme in fact, that it calls for further larger studies to be done. How many of the reported cases were abuse? How many of these women reported the situation to their hospital? Is this a problem that is widespread across all professions in Korea? These are all important questions that need answering and preferably with some urgency. What is a bit disappointing, though, is that this story has been met with almost complete silence by the media with zero reaction from the public. Search on naver and the issue is on a minor news page with no comments from readers and the Korea Times article was also relegated to an almost unsearchable page with only 3 comments, one of which was a Korean man making fun of nurses, who would call anything sexual harassment and another was making fun of the bad English grammar. The story did not reach any televised news as far as my wife and I could tell. Even my wife’s parents – when told of the harassment of nurses in my wife’s hospital – simply replied, in something roughly translated as, ‘well, doctors will be doctors.’
There have been some other studies out there but not many. The Chinese Women’s Research Network states that 90% of women that are sexually harassed in South Korea do not report it and that 80% of women would pretend not to notice if a workmate was being sexually harassed. A report by the Human Rights Monitor Korea quotes the figures of sexual harassment in the workplace to be at 40%, but also states that many cases go unreported. There are also laws regarding the conduct of employees in companies about sexual harassment but, as with many of the token laws of Korea, they seem like they are rarely enforced. This is a worry as Korea does have some prior history and slightly dodgy stories involving it’s track record in this area. In 2011 stories of sexual harassment even reached the BBC, as they reported on the sexual harassment of contestants in an international beauty pageant conducted in South Korea, where a British woman was involved. Inside Korea, my suspicion is that everyone knows this kind of thing is going on because of the multitude of stories that can be found on the matter, but it is just an accepted part of work culture.
It is tempting to really lay into Korean culture on this topic, but before all the evidence is in (if any more is ever going to come to light) and because of some other figures relating to the US on sexual harassment, I am going to hold back a little. I had heard a rumour that women experiencing sexual harassment at work in the US was at about 40%, but on closer inspection it seems that this figure is closer to 25%, still an alarming statistic. What I also found interesting is that there is a marked difference in the perceived importance of this issue in people with different political persuasions. 75% of Democrats call this issue a serious problem compared to 53% of Republicans (there is also a rather obvious disparity between men’s and women’s opinions). This shows then, that a more conservative mind-set is liable to not consider such things as an area for concern. South Korea remains a highly conservative minded country and still maintains a rather patriarchal society, so perhaps it is no surprise this issue has been given the cold shoulder.
What’s more, there have been plenty of sexual scandals in the West also; the Catholic Church also has a culture of hierarchy and respect that is damaging to the rights of people of lower status, in their case the young children in priest’s care. In my own country, Britain, a scandal erupted last year – also involving children and young women – over a famous TV presenter in the 70’s and 80’s named Jimmy Saville. After his death in 2011 a string of accusations were leveled at him which were backed-up by a great many people at the BBC who confirmed that his reputation as a pervert was somewhat legendary. That so many people seemed to know about what he was doing and yet no one said anything seems almost unbelievable. This just goes to show what high status and power can do for you in covering up your tracks and getting away with offences. Amazingly, you can even see a clip of Jimmy Saville harassing a young woman on live TV. It was a sign of the times that no-one noticed and perhaps Korea is at the same stage of moral and cultural evolution right now. And even as recently as last week, another related story involving the sexual harassment of women in one of the major political parties in Britain came to light, calling into question the male dominated nature of politics in the UK.
What concerns me about Korea, however, is that these stories were actually scandals in the West, they produced a good deal of reaction (while acknowledging that two of my examples are a good deal more scandalous as they involve children and outright abuse) and a great deal more research and action has been done into the issue of sexual harassment in most Western countries. Would the story of the abuse and harassment of so many nurses make the news and cause a public outcry in my country? I would have to say that I think it would, people would at least be asking for more information on the issue and women’s rights groups would be fuming. The working environment for women in the West is much more comfortable than it is in South Korea - and this is probably somewhat of an understatement – because of the weight of outrage such issues create in the populace. Koreans, and women especially, need to start being offended and take action.
We, of course, cannot expect the same degree of action and disgust in a country very new to the concept of individual rights and especially the rights of women. Women do have a place in Korea and it is somewhat down the hierarchy of respect and this is affecting their ability to make themselves heard. The major news stories will continue to be filled with issues surrounding national pride as a collective rather than when little people are stepped upon. On the day of release of the nursing story, the major headlines revolved around Dokdo (again) and a certain Korean golfer’s traitorous allegiance to the United States rather than Korea. Both stories received hundreds and hundreds of passionate responses of outrage on many news websites and in the papers. To me, it is a pity Korea cannot have more feelings about a subject which – if these figures are more than a little representative of all hospitals in Korea and across a wide range of professions – could affect a large proportion of their population.
If something could be done to prevent sexual harassment and abuse in the future this might also pave the way for more rights for employees at work generally. This is an area that causes too much stress for Korean people and also foreign workers at times. Staff dinners, drinking and singing are pretty much mandatory if you want to be accepted at work, be promoted, and in extreme cases, keep your job. People of superior positions in companies can also feel entitled to bully and belittle those in lower positions. Just one change in employment law, which outlines workers’ rights and enforced penalties for companies that do not comply with the rules, could bring about a landslide in better working conditions for all, something that is sorely needed in Korea.