SEOUL, South Korea The advice for pregnant women seems to spring from a bygone era: Make sure there’s enough toilet paper in the house, prepare meals for your husband, don’t forget to look after your looks maybe hanging smaller clothes in visible areas will work as a motivation to lose weight?
The suggestions aren’t from a 1950s manual about how to be a good housewife. They were shared by the Seoul city government this month.
The guidance based on outdated gender stereotypes was later deleted, but the controversy has re-energized the debate in South Korea around how women are viewed in society.
“I felt angry at the government, but at the same time, for most of my life, I grew up in an environment where I thought I had no choice but to get married as a woman and that not doing so would be a sign of failure,” said Shin Set-byul, 23, a college senior who defines herself as a radical feminist.
A wireless sensor next to special priority seats blinks with pink light, signaling that a pregnant passenger is approaching or standing nearby, in a subway train in Busan, South Korea.Kwon Sung-hoon / AP file
An official of the Seoul Metropolitan Government said the city reposted the guidance, originally published in 2019 by South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, without having sufficiently reviewed it.
Park Jin-kyung, a professor of Korean and international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said the guidelines are a byproduct of the industrialization era, when “there was a clear division of labor within the family, with the man as the breadwinner and woman as a housewife.”
She said women’s perceptions of marriage and motherhood began to shift away from traditional duties in the late 1980s and the 1990s particularly after South Korea’s financial crisis in 1997 and 1998.
“At that time of uncertainty, there were deep anxieties about jobs, housing, family breakdowns and unprepared retirements,” Park said. “After witnessing how a social crisis adversely affected life, women began to find professional goals to be equally or even more important than marriage.”
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Still, as of last year, the proportion of women in South Korea who are economically active has stagnated at around 50 percent about 20 points lower than men.
And although the college admission rate for women was 7.9 percent higher than that of their male counterparts, according to 2019 statistics, the educational advances have yet to be reflected in the labor market.
Women make 32.5 percent less than male employees in South Korea, the worst gender pay gap among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. In Japan, the next-to-last country on the list, women make 23.5 percent less than men, and in the United States, the gap is 18.5 percent, according to the OECD.
“In our family, everyone manages whatever task they’re good at,” said Yoon Myung, 48, a mother of two who works in aromatherapy and counseling. “My husband fumbles with the housework but instead fixes all the appliances, which saves me a lot of energy. We don’t really think of this in the context of gender at all.”
South Korea’s rapidly aging population and declining birthrate have also pushed officials to promote motherhood. Last year, the country recorded more deaths than births for the first time, and its birthrate fell to 0.84 per woman, the lowest in the world.
Faced with these trends, in 2017, the state-run Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs suggested that well-educated women earning high incomes were being too picky about their partners and that they should “lower their standards.”
The government is also offering cash incentives of about $919 to every pregnant woman and about $1,839 after they give birth.
“As the low birthrate trend continues, pro-natalist policies have attempted to solve the problem by attributing the cause of low birthrates to women and pressuring them to give birth,” said Sunhye Kim, a professor who specializes in reproduction and childbirth at the Ewha Womans University women’s studies department.
The public is increasingly pushing back against such policies, she said. After Seoul published the pregnancy guidelines this month, an online petition to the South Korean government demanding an apology collected more than 25,000 signatures.
Still, Shin, the college student, said that despite such calls for change, most feminists in her circle, herself included, have to organize discreetly, using anonymous identities for their safety.
“I would say it’s still dangerous to openly call yourself a feminist in Korea today,” Shin said.

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