Management in Korea is a regular column written by the members of Egon Zhender Seoul touching on various aspects of Korean enterprises and business leaders and offering management tips. -- Ed.
Each year since 2015, Egon Zehnder has held a global event series, Leaders & Daughters, which brings together senior executives of both genders, and their daughters, for frank discussion of the opportunities and challenges facing current and future female executives.
In some cases, the size of the event was a rough proxy for the strength of the community of female executives in that city: More than 300 people attended the New York event; more than 200 came to London’s panel discussion.
Participants attend the Leaders & Daughters event in Seoul. (Egon Zehnder Seoul)
The Seoul event, however, was a much more intimate gathering of 13. When the invitation list was being compiled, it was quickly discovered that not only were there few female executives to invite, but even fewer of them had children — let alone daughters with professional career ambitions.
This anecdote highlights the complexity of improving gender equality in Korea. That there are few female executives with children reflects the small number of women here who feel they can aspire to have both family and career.
Work and life balance is a challenge everywhere, but countries with a better record on gender equality work to establish policies and norms so that women are not forced into making that choice.
Having to choose between family and career does more than discourage the current cohort of women -- it weakens the prospects for the next generation as well.
One of the strongest themes that emerged from the global Leaders & Daughters event series was the importance of working mothers -- and supportive fathers -- as role models for their daughters.
Growing up watching a mother who is able to set and achieve a succession of career goals is the strongest encouragement a young woman can have. And several of the men who participated in our Leaders & Daughters panel discussions noted that they became much more sensitive to the hurdles career women face when they considered the futures of their own ambitious daughters. They scrutinized company practices more critically and were more proactive in identifying women to mentor and promote.
Such households do exist in Korea, but not nearly in the numbers needed to accelerate change. Indeed, the daughters who attended the Seoul event were surprised to find that they were not alone in having a childhood without home-cooked meals.
They also shared their pride in hearing their mothers speak of the challenges they overcame on their career journeys.
Ina Choi, the guest speaker at the Seoul event and Samsung’s first female senior executive, spoke for many of the mothers in the room when she described the loneliness of being a trailblazer. “It is very lonely to be the first, but you need to endure that time,” she said. “You need the first female executive to be successful in order to have a second and a third.”
The traditional criticism of working mothers is that they slight both their children and their employer because they cannot give their full attention to either. But the reality is often different: Female executives who are mothers — and particularly those with daughters — are role models both at work and at home.
They further their own ambitions, mentor younger women in the workforce and inspire the next generation. Companies thus need to view working mothers as important leadership assets that help attract and retain talent, and should implement policies that change the work-family equation from “either/or” to “both.” Those that do will reap significant benefits both now and in the future.
By Eugene Kim and Kim Ah-jeong
Eugene Kim is the managing partner of advisory firm Egon Zehnder Seoul. He works with public and private corporations, family-owned enterprises, nonprofit and government agencies to provide board advisory services, CEO and leadership succession planning and development. He can be reached at Eugene.Kim@egonzehnder.com)
Kim Ah-jeong is the head of research at Egon Zehnder Seoul. She leads the Seoul research team, covering more than 200 projects from various industries. She can be reached at AJ.Kim@egonzehnder.com