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What if Cho Hyun-ah were a man?

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By Jason Lim

The privileged scion of a conglomerate that runs the Korean Air becomes enraged against over some triviality about the proper way of serving macadamia nuts to first class passengers. Even as the plane begins to move away from the gate on its way from New York to Seoul, she orders the pilot to take the plane back to the gate and sends off the chief flight attendant for not knowing his regulations. Throughout this episode, she apparently shouts curses and abuses at the involved flight attendants, creating a huge scene.

When this story leaked on social media, this episode went viral in a big way both domestically and internationally, creating an embarrassment for the conglomerate and leading to the resignation of Cho from her post as a vice president at the airline. However, the story refuses to die a quick death as it represents a perfect storm of three main resentments that're widely shared by many in Korea today.

One, resentment over the seemingly unassailable power and privilege of the few chaebol family clans over everyone else; two, resentment over the have's using their wealth and power to abuse the basic human dignity of the have not's; and three, resentment over the elite and connected manipulating the system to work only for them at the cost of everyone else (remember Sewol)?

Cho's apparent meltdown in the first class cabin feeds into these streams of interrelated resentments, creating an overriding narrative that has a bad-tempered child of a chaebol family with an enlarged sense of entitlement in an executive position that she doesn't deserve wrongfully abusing her employees in a mean and degrading manner and thinking that she's above the law in ordering an already-departed plan back to the gate to kick off the chief flight attendant.

How delicious. How perfect. How black and white.

Perhaps too black and white.

Which makes me automatically suspicious. To note, I am not necessarily suspicious of what actually went down on that flight. I am suspicious and wary of how we are interpreting what actually happened into an almost cathartic narrative of good vs. evil based on our stereotypes of who Cho represents, not who Cho really is as an individual. In a way, this incident has become a symbolic, moral fable that explains everything that's wrong in Korean society, with Cho as the evil step mother. In the Korean Air incident, the stereotype that Cho represents is that of a super-elite with inherited wealth and power with an ingrained sense of over-blown entitlement.

And we know that stereotypes matter. These mostly unconscious socio-cultural beliefs and expectations over specific groups of people drive our reactions and behaviors, with serious and even lethal consequences. We have just seen how racist stereotypes led to the deaths of two black men and one black child recently in the U.S. precisely because they shape how the police behave when faced with a black male.

This also leads me to question how Cho being a woman in such position of power is shaping this narrative. No matter how she got to this position, Cho is one of the very few women who have attained key executive status in any Korean conglomerate in a deeply Confucian and male-centric society that ranks last in OECD countries in gender equality. This is a country where the adage, "The household will be ruined if the chicken makes too much noise outside" is still thrown about. In such culture, unspoken but widely held stereotypes about women who are ambitious and driven to succeed in a corporate setting are bound to come into play.

So, what if Cho were a man? Could a popular interpretation of the events be a bit more nuanced then? Could Cho's actions be that of a passionate, decisive executive who saw a problem and made a front-line decision ― knowing full well of the consequences of such a decision ― because he was a perfectionist and truly cared about providing the highest quality passenger care to his customers, firmly believing that "everything was in the details," even as trivial as macadamia nuts? Admittedly, his actions were over-the-top, but his intentions were good and instincts unerringly accurate. After all, this is the type of leadership that's needed for Korean Air to catch up to Asiana in overall airline ranking in this highly competitive industry.

Contrast this to the popular narrative of an over-privileged woman with an inflated sense of importance losing her temper over some triviality and lashing out irrationally at everyone, not to mention turning spiteful and vindictive when people start calling her out.

Perhaps this is exactly what happened. Perhaps Cho is exactly how the current narrative describes her. After all, it's difficult to defend what she did on that flight even if half of what's reported is true. However, it's also difficult not to notice strands of gender stereotyping in the popular narrative; that of a bitchy, irrational, manipulating, and overly-ambitious woman trying to climb the corporate ladder beyond her capability.

Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at, facebook. com/jasonlimkoreatimes and @jasonlim2012.


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