In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2013, the Republic of Korea ranked 111th out of 136 countries. The major reason behind this low ranking lies in the country’s low female labour force participation rate and lack of women’s representation in decision-making positions.

The labour force participation rate of women in their twenties outnumbered that of men in the same age group, leaving little gap in the entry level between men and women. However, the same measure for Korean women in their thirties shows a drastic decline, lagging at 60% of the rate for men in this age group. This means 300,000 women aged 30-39 are quitting jobs due to new responsibilities arising from childbirth and childcare.

Furthermore, The Economist reported last year that Korea’s Glass Ceiling Index score was the lowest among 26 OECD countries, indicating there are still fewer opportunities for women to be promoted into managerial positions, leading to a larger gender gap in high-level executive positions.

Therefore, resolving the under-utilization of women, who make up half of Korea’s economic power and potential for growth, should be the top priority for closing the gender gap as well as bringing sustainable growth to our low-fertility and ageing society.

The positive impact of women on the economy can only be maximized when the government strengthens its policies, allowing women to become leaders at work while achieving a work-life balance and being able to take breaks to have children without sacrificing their careers. The private sector and society also have an important role to play in acknowledging the importance of women reaching their potential.

After the inauguration of the first female president last year, the Korean government included maximizing the impact of women and closing the gender gap in its key national policy agenda. It has been working hard to prevent women having to put their careers on hold when they have children, to foster female talent and to promote work-life balance.

Last year, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) strengthened its coordinating role in women’s policy-making, which had been separately planned and implemented among different ministries. The MOGEF focused on encouraging all ministries to get involved in closing the gender gap. Particularly, relevant ministries closely collaborated to expand the number of in-house childcare facilities in the workplace. Also, to enhance women’s representation, the public sector took the lead by setting a target ratio of female managers, with some departments already exceeding the target.

Last month, MOGEF launched its “Lifecycle Career Support Strategy for Working Women” to create a society where women are no longer forced to interrupt their careers when they have children, and to provide a solid foundation for women’s work-life balance. The recently announced “Three-year Economic Innovation Plan” by President Park outlined the goals to expand the number of jobs for women from 290,000 to 1.5 million, and to increase women’s employment rate from 53.9% to 61.9%.

With such effort by the government, the employment rate of women in their thirties is slightly increasing (from 54.5% in 2012 to 55.5% in 2013). Additionally, we have seen more female leaders breaking through the glass ceiling and taking important steps forward – the appointment of the first female head of a Korean bank is one great piece of evidence. But the status of women in Korea today is best described by the following quote: “Spring may have come at the foot of the mountain, but its top still remains under the perennial snow.”

Gender parity can only be achieved when the whole nation, including private companies, takes part in the process. Each and every part of society should acknowledge how important it is to harness the potential of women and take steps to eradicate discriminatory practices or culture. The government alone can never achieve this.

To this end, MOGEF is collaborating with the World Economic Forum to launch a Gender Parity Task Force. It will encourage participation from private companies and Korean society to boost the presence of women in the workplace and close the gender gap.

The task force will be set up this June and is expected to run for three years, bringing together 100 members from different sectors of society: the government, private companies and public institutions. The government, as a co-chair of this initiative, will advise the task force on specific action plans, while a nationwide campaign will be launched to promote the vision and outcomes of the task force. The results will be shared so that other countries can gain insights.

It may be difficult to achieve gender equality in a short period of time, as doing so requires changes in public awareness. However, when the government, the private sector and society as a whole work together, it can create a country where women excel through the whole course of their lives.

This blog is part of a series for International Women’s Day.

 Author: Cho Yoon-Sun is the minister of gender equality and family of the Republic of Korea

Image: A woman walks past an electronic display board at a securities company in Seoul November 9, 2007. REUTERS/Han Jae-Ho