COVID-19 and Stay-at-home Mothers in South Korea Draw Attention to Social Norms

In mid-February, the South Korean government closed schools nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All schools were postponed to early April; however, as of April 13th, it still appears that there are still weeks left until schools re-open, leaving most students stuck at home.

Source: Arab News

However, South Korea has yet to impose a country wide isolation, and a large majority of the population is working as usual. Thus, while children are forced to stay at home, their parents are attending work regularly.

This has created issues for many families, particularly for those where both adults work, leaving nobody to stay with the children during the day. However, in South Korean media, the attention was focused on how stay-at-home moms have been coping with the quarantine. Shortly after schools closed, photos of signs countless stay-at-home mothers had made and stuck on their doors went viral on Facebook and Instagram. These signs had phrases such as “Don’t call mom unless it’s an emergency,” “Get it for yourself,” and “Do not disturb.”

This is to be expected of considering how COVID-19 has changed daily life for South Korean stay-at-home mothers; once empty houses, at least during the day, are now crammed with children unable to go to school, hagwons (South Korean study academies), and study cafes. The typical South Korean student leaves for school around 7am and returns home by at least 10 or 11pm after spending most of the evening at hagwons.

Not only do these signs draw attention to the impact COVID-19 has had on home dynamics, but also to why South Korea has such a high percentage of stay-at-home moms in the first place.

The Korean Herald

Despite more parents in the United States choosing to be stay-at-home moms, around 23%, South Korea still has nearly double the percentage of stay-at-home moms — around 40% of moms choose not to work outside of the house. As shown in the infographic above, in 2012, 56.4% of working females aged 30–39 quit their careers with 96% of them citing reasons regarding marriage or childcare.

According to an article in The Korean Herald, Lee So-young, despite initially planning to be a working mom, chose to quit her job after having her first child due to South Korea’s restricted work environment. “It was nearly impossible for me both physically and mentally to compete with male colleagues during pregnancy in a business environment that gives more promotion opportunities for those who work longer and are good at entertaining bosses at company dinners,” she said. Moreover, South Korea’s competitive work environment makes it even more difficult for mothers to return back to their jobs after having a child.

This pattern can be traced not only to South Korea’s work environment, but also the country’s social norms and gender equality rates in the workplace.

The Economist

South Korea has one of the poorest gender equality rates out of OECD countries; the gender pay gap in Korea is 34.6%, while the OECD average is 13.1%. As shown in the graph above from the Economist, out of the 29 countries examined, South Korea has the thickest glass ceiling for women in the workplace. Social norms in South Korea’s workplace can often pressure females out of their careers, thus resulting in more mothers choosing to remain stay-at-home moms even after childbirth. Even if mothers wish to return to the workforce, according to an article in The Diplomat, they are faced with “lower pay as many are often forced to take irregular work rather than return to full-time positions.”