Misaeng: Women in the corporate world of South Korea
South Korea society, like many others, is deeply patriarchal. While it has advanced technologically and economically at an alarming rate, society continues to straddle both Western influences and traditional Confucian values. Although it is predominantly patriarchal, more and more women are taking part in the corporate work force, even securing top managerial positions. Misaeng, both the drama series and the manhwa, has become extremely popular amongst South Korea white-collar workers. As ratings steadily rise and manhwa sales hit a million, it’s easy to see what makes this series a big hit.
Women in the workplace is a topic the drama tackles head on. Female lead, Kang Sora had been in the spotlight ever since she took up this project and everyone was particularly impressed by her fluent English. In the series, Kang Sora, as intern Young Yi, is in the spotlight right from the start. In following episodes, we also see the character Ji-Young, deputy director at One International.
Young Yi is the top intern. She succeeds in her solo presentation. She boldly puts on the products and presents them to a (presumably) American representative of a company selling padded lingerie. While 3 of her senior colleagues – including the team manager – stand behind her, she speaks in fluent English and impresses the rep in a short time. They close the deal and Young Yi gets endlessly praised by her team.
Not only is she the best, Young-Yi is the only female intern in the entire batch. The first few episodes depict her as the favourite intern: all the team managers want her on their team. The entire floor, consisting of several departments, appears to only have a small pool of female employees. They probably have one female team member on each team. While Young-Yi has proven herself well enough as an intern, she can’t do much when she gets officially hired as a full-time employee and joins the resource team.
As the one intern to sail through her internship, it is rather surprising to find her facing horrible treatment from her senior colleague in the resources team. You would think that your colleagues would only pick on you if you are completely incompetent (like the series’ protagonist, Geu Rae) but her senior colleague refuses to work with her and bullies her into doing unnecessary tasks within the team’s cubicle. While she diligently heeds his every command, hoping that this will help her get some sort of approval from him, the team manager silently watches on. By not stepping in, in some way, he is condoning this bullying.
It may appear that these troubles are because she is just an intern but it applies just the same to deputy director Ji Young. Ji Young may not get hostile treatment as Young Yi does but her storyline also highlights the troubles of being female in a managerial corporate position.
“Working mums are always at fault; to the company, to in-laws… and the kid. If you want to continue working, don’t get married.” (Ji Young, Misaeng)
Obviously, Ji Young has had a tough time. If things were worse when she started out – as it is for Young Yi as a newbie – it goes to show it never gets easier from then on. After getting married and having a child, she struggles to keep work and family in balance. But things don’t work the way she wants. While she continues to do a great job at work, sitting in a highly respected position, she has to struggle in conditions that do not favour her as a woman. Knowing this, she tells Young Yi to choose between marriage and work. She loves working but she also knows that her work became a burden after she got married and gave birth. Not only is she expected to do equally as well – perhaps much better – than her male counterparts in the corporate setting, she is expected to fulfil her role as a wife and mother.
In the predominantly patriarchal society that South Korea continues to be, there is no room for excuses. Most of the men in the company show no respect for women. They lash out in rage when women make mistakes by proclaiming that these are obvious reasons why they don’t trust women and why women should stay out of corporate workplaces.
While fiction and most Korean dramas are usually not very accurate portrayals of real-life, this drama and its original manhwa seem to be fairly true-to-life as proven by its popularity amongst the white-collar population of South Korea. Obviously, there are people like Chief Oh who refuses to use women to get his way with clients and shows much more respect for women than most other men in One International. Yet the series seems to be telling its audience that evil prevails in the corporate world and the working environment in which women have to thrive in appears to be much more toxic than most people would like to believe.
Women in South Korea face a lot of struggles that most men may never have to deal with. While women like Ji Young continue to work in spite of the difficulty of striking the balance between her duty as a mother and wife with her role as deputy director, many women in corporate settings choose to quit their jobs in order to live up to the expectation of women to be mothers and wives. When they make that choice, as they often do in South Korea and various East Asian countries, they quickly lose their identities as individuals.
This can be seen in various ways. Women in the workplace are usually called by their first names (eg. Ji Young-ssi, Young Yi-ssi, etc.) but women who are wives or mothers are often called by (insert name of husband or child)’s wife or mother. It turns an individual into nothing more than someone else’s someone. The woman, in the end, fades into the background; dedicating her life and energy to her family while having her own individual identity stripped away at the same time.