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INTERVIEW'Gender equality is not zero-sum game between men and women'

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Lee Jeong-shim, director of the U.N. Women Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality, poses at her office in Seoul, Feb. 28. Courtesy of U.N. Women Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality

Lee Jeong-shim, director of the U.N. Women Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality, poses at her office in Seoul, Feb. 28. Courtesy of U.N. Women Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality

Chief of UN Women Seoul office urges continued efforts for gender equality

Editor's note

This article is the fourth in The Korea Times' 2024 series focusing on diversity, inclusiveness and equality. — ED.

By Lee Hyo-jin

Over the past few decades, Korea has witnessed significant strides in the status of women, establishing pathways toward gender equality through basic laws, challenging the nation's predominantly patriarchal culture.

With such progress, some argue that there may be no need for specific efforts toward gender equality.

However, Lee Jeong-shim, director of U.N. Women Excellence for Gender Equality in Seoul, holds a different view. Such progress does not imply the absence of challenges, she said, calling for specific efforts and continued focus on gender equality to address remaining inequalities.

"Even in countries globally recognized for having the highest status of women, such as Finland and Sweden, gender equality is considered one of the main national challenges and agendas. This is because it is clear that no country has achieved full gender equality worldwide, according to U.N. data," she said during a recent written interview with The Korea Times on the occasion of International Women's Day, which falls on Friday.

This marks her first interview with local media since she assumed the role in September 2022 with the launch of the U.N. Women office in Seoul. The organization is the first U.N. agency in Korea dedicated to gender equality and women's empowerment.

According to a 2023 U.N. report on gender equality index, Korea stands relatively higher than the world average in terms of securing women's basic needs such as health and education.

Yet, the nation falls short of the global average when it comes to breaking the glass ceiling for women's participation in decision-making, Lee pointed out.

In Korea, women hold just 19.1 percent of the seats in the 21st National Assembly, lower than the world average of 26.3 percent. Among Cabinet members, 17 percent are women, compared to the global average of 22.8 percent.Additionally, Korean women only occupy 14.6 percent of managerial positions at companies, which is lower than the world average of 31.2 percent.

"Fewer women in leadership positions means the lack of opportunities for women's voices to be heard in society," she said.

"It is not only about women and men's issues, but also about whether society is ready to hear voices from individuals with different backgrounds and experiences ... Research shows that when women have a seat at the table, policies are more gender-responsive and inclusive," she added, expressing hopes for Korea to see progress in women's representation through the upcoming April 10 general elections.

Lee is a gender equality expert with over three decades of experience in the government sector. She previously served as a deputy minister for youth and family at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Since the establishment of the U.N. Women Seoul office, Lee Jeong-shim's team has organized numerous activities, such as training sessions, policy dialogues, and international forums. Their efforts have solidified the office's role as a central knowledge and partnership hub for gender equality across the Asia Pacific region.

In September of last year, the center hosted a three-week Women's Military Peace Operations Course (WMPOC), offering an invaluable opportunity for over 20 women military officers from 12 countries in the Asia Pacific region to prepare for deployment to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

On this year's International Women's Day, the center will host a commemoration event titled "Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress," bringing together around 200 participants from the public and private sectors, as well as the diplomatic community. The event aims to foster reflection on why Korea needs to increase its investments in women.

"Financial investment in women remains alarmingly low around the globe," Lee said. "I hope our center can facilitate gender mainstreaming, particularly in sectors that have been largely untouched, by actively utilizing the strong brand power of U.N. Women."

The director also addressed the widening gender divide among the younger generation, a phenomenon observed not only in Korea but also across the world.

"There have been growing efforts to build male allyship for gender equality, driven not solely by altruistic motives but also by a recognition of mutual benefits," she said, explaining that achieving gender equality benefits both genders and stressing the positive impact on men as well.

"This is why our center is deliberately bringing in not only women, but also men speakers who can disseminate this message, to counteract the misconception that gender equality is a zero-sum game between men and women."

Lee Hyo-jin


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