(Bloomberg) -- Yoo Myung-hee runs the office renegotiating Korea’s trade deal with the U.S. It’s a far cry from when she joined the trade ministry in 1996, one of three women deliberately appointed to bring some gender diversity to the ranks.
As the ministry’s first and only female deputy minister, her career shows just how far women in South Korea have come in those 22 years, but also shines a spotlight on areas where progress is still lacking.
“I studied a lot about trade for the hiring interview at the ministry, but my boss’s first question was whether I could drink and work late at night,” Yoo said in an interview last week. “I said I can endure many sleepless nights.”
Although there are more women joining Korea’s work force, they remain scarce in senior posts, and the bureaucracy still has a long way to go to achieve equality. About 40 percent of civil servants are women, but they make up only five percent of higher ranks such as directors-general and deputy ministers.
Those kinds of attitudes and overt sexual discrimination are much harder to find now, Yoo said, although there still are structural barriers that prevent women from being promoted, such as the “family-unfriendly” culture that requires employees to be available around the clock.
She says trade negotiation is an area where individuals are judged based on their merit, regardless of gender, which is why she encourages more women to join her. Every one has their own way of negotiating, Yoo said, adding that her process is to thoroughly prepare by going through every relevant law, clause, and regulation to build her case.
“You are assessed by dozens of fellow negotiators screening your logic and argument -- made not in your native language but in English -- and if you have the capacity, you can be recognized without doing the networking at night,” she said. “There are so many female negotiators, some of them moms, working like swans madly paddling underwater, and I expect them to become a critical mass soon.”
Thirty percent of the 1,265 officials at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy are female, but Yoo is the only one in the senior ranks. She oversees all ongoing trade deal talks with countries including the U.S., China, and Latin America. But that success has come at some personal cost.
“With women being rare throughout my career, it required more effort to prove myself, which sometimes came at the cost of my children,” Yoo said. “One of them was hospitalized three times for weeks before turning one, and I wasn’t there.”
She’s still "struggling and juggling" to balance her work and roles as the wife of a lawmaker, and as a mother of two children - a teenage daughter in Seoul and a son working in Russia to promote Korean pop music.
When it comes to her husband, a spokesman for an opposition party that was negative on the renegotiated U.S. deal, Yoo’s rule is not to talk work with him. “We discuss everything else -- books, good editorials, life values -- but not work,” Yoo said.
Yoo’s main task is to expand Korea’s trading network in the face of rising global trade protectionism. But she also feels another responsibility -- paving the way for aspiring female trade negotiators to follow in her footsteps.
"I think women face a major hurdle after child birth -- your organization may not tolerate the changes you are going through, and you may want to give up," Yoo said. "There is no one answer to the challenges working mothers face. Women themselves should be professional and continue to seek the best results, and each organization should understand that healthy families form the core of a society."
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