Gender Issues in South Korea and the United Kingdom: Influence of Culture on National Gender Perspective

Asmin Sarıpınar

Rana Nesibe Yüce

Toplumsal Cinsiyet Çalışmaları Staj Programı


This paper points out the importance of cultural differences in gender issues in different countries, respectively South Korea and the United Kingdom. For the purpose of this paper, two countries with completely different cultural backgrounds have been selected and reviewed through the lens of “gender.” For this study, R. Asmin Sarıpınar focuses on South Korea while Rana Nesibe Yüce focuses on the United Kingdom, each pointing out the significance of culture and its relation to specific gender issues in the aforementioned countries, with a conclusion that not only associates gender with culture but also argues that gender is what it is because culture is what it is. The authors first explain the respective reasons why they have decided to focus on the target countries, then go on to describe gender issues in those countries. The conclusion includes a connection and a comparison between South Korea and the United Kingdom, with the concluding argument emphasizing the significance of culture in relation to gender.

Keywords: South Korea, The United Kingdom, Gender, Culture, Feminism.


Bu çalışma, sırasıyla Güney Kore ve Büyük Britanya olmak üzere iki farklı ülkedeki toplumsal cinsiyet sorunları bağlamında kültürel farklılıkların önemine dikkat çekmeyi amaçlamaktadır. Bu amaç doğrultusunda, tamamen farklı kültürel geçmişlere sahip iki ülke seçilmiş ve “cinsiyet” merceğinden incelenmiştir. Bu çalışma için R. Asmin Sarıpınar, Güney Kore’ye odaklanırken Rana Nesibe Yüce Birleşik Krallık’a odaklanmaktadır. Yazarlar kültürün önemine ve sözü edilen ülkelerdeki belirli toplumsal cinsiyet sorunlarıyla ilişkisine dikkat çekmiş ve cinsiyeti kültürle ilişkilendirip aynı zamanda toplumsal cinsiyeti toplumsal cinsiyet yapanın kültürü kültür yapanla bir olduğu sonucuna varmışlardır. Yazarlar önce hedef ülkelere odaklanmaya karar vermelerinin ilgili nedenlerini açıklamış, ardından bu ülkelerdeki toplumsal cinsiyet meselelerine değinmiştir. Sonuç kısmı, kültürün cinsiyete ilişkin önemini vurgulayan ve Güney Kore ve Büyük Britanya arasında yapılan bir karşılaştırmayı içermektedir.

Anahtar Kelimeler: Güney Kore, Birleşik Krallık, Toplumsal Cinsiyet, Kültür, Feminizm.


Gender is a relatively recent term coined by John Money in the early 1950s. Although “Money used the concept of ‘gender role’ to refer to an aspect of individuals’ subjective identity” (Cortez, Gaudenzi and Maksud, 2019, p. 2), what he defines as “gender roles” have existed since the dawn of societies. These roles are assigned to people depending on the sex they were assigned at birth. This paper aims to determine how universal and how local gender roles are. In an article titled “This idea must die: ‘Gender roles are universal’,” Dr. Sheina Lew-Levy states that the idea that gender roles can be universal is a damaging idea that oversimplifies the gender struggle, explaining that “human development always occurs within a cultural context, and this context can mediate the degree to which gender-typed behaviour is expressed.” Reaction to “gender roles” varies massively between countries and regions. This paper, with the help of two regions of focus, South Korea with Eastern and The United Kingdom with Western elements, respectively, seeks to achieve a deeper understanding of the significance of culture when it comes to “gender,” and why simply stating “gender struggles are universal” is not only an oversimplification but also wrong.

1. How Important Is One’s “Gender” in South Korea?

As previously mentioned, although “gender” as a term is a rather recent invention, the concept has existed since the dawn of civilisation. Whether Eastern or Western, each society has its established rules of ever-changing gender norms, some similar and some quite different from one another. The first section of this paper will focus on South Korea, which was chosen to provide an Eastern perspective on gender norms and inequality. This perspective will be employed to prove that although gender inequality is global, gender norms are greatly influenced by cultural differences. South Korea is a particular case, mainly because of the incredibly swift developments and cultural changes it experienced over only a few decades. These changes are naturally reflected on South Korean culture and its gender issues. 

One of the most predominant ways in which gender inequalities can be observed in South Korea is, quite literally, in a woman’s womb. In an article titled “Gender discrimination in sex-selective abortions and its transition in South Korea,” authors Chun and Das Gupta dissect the selective abortion and prenatal sex selection phenomena that have taken over South Korea and many other East Asian countries for quite a long time. It is true that “Parents are no longer prepared to bear as many children as it takes to have a son, but they nevertheless want a son” (2009, p. 89), which leads them to resort to abortion or sex selection. However, “South Korea showed the unique case of a downward trend over the last decade” compared to other East Asian countries (95). Chun and Das Gupta argue that although there are many contributing factors to this development, the most important factor is the changes in how South Korean “society values children and the roles of sons vis-a-vis daughters (2009, p. 95-96)”. 

It can be argued that technological and economic developments greatly affected these changes as South Korea increasingly became part of a globalized world. The paper titled “Marriage, Independence and Adulthood among Unmarried Women in South Korea” by Kim, Lee and Park shows detailed and evidence-based research on the increasing trend amongst South Korean women to avoid marriage. Park and Lee report that South Korean census data hints at a “possibly emerging trend of forgone marriage” (2016, p. 340). This differs vastly from the older generations, meaning that it cannot be denied that these swift changes in the country caused quite a lot of turmoil among different generations, as well as different sexes. 

2. The Cases In Which Societal Norms Are Non-Gendered

Certain societal norms would traditionally be considered “gendered” in Western societies, while the same cannot be said for South Korea. Perhaps the most popular of these is the immense pressure on South Korean people of all genders to look “aesthetically pleasing” in accordance with society’s standards. Not only women but also men are faced with hardships due to the strict beauty standards in South Korean society. One common belief in Western societies is that cosmetic surgery is a mostly feminine practice. However, this notion, when applied to South Korea, “is a key weakness of the existing literature and produces only partial accounts of national cosmetic practices” (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012, p. 60). This is a good example of westernizing long-existing cultures and shows us why calling gender norms universal would undermine certain cultures. 

3. How Is “Gender” Perceived In The United Kingdom?

Up until this point in the paper, gender issues in South Korea have been discussed taking into account the South Korean culture. This section of the research paper will focus on the United Kingdom’s gender issues in recent history. The United Kingdom is the oldest imperialistic state in Europe. Since it can be argued that imperialism is one of the foundations of patriarchy, when discussing gender issues regarding the “West,” the UK takes up a big slice of the discussion. Gender norms influenced by culture affect women’s positioning in every aspect of their life, be it home, work, public life, or politics. Women everywhere are bound to these norms imposed on them and the United Kingdom is not an exception. Compared to other countries in Europe, the public in the UK seems to believe that addressing gender inequality is no longer a priority for the nation; there is the belief that the UK has reached gender equality, which is far from the truth (Duffy, 2021). On the official website of The Women’s Equality Party, statistics show clearly that women still have the lowest-paying jobs in the UK. “Although women make up 51 per cent of the population, they are only 29 per cent of MPs, 25 per cent of judges, and 24 per cent of FTSE 100 directors.” (n.d.), fewer job titles are given to women in prominent and important branches of government, resulting in women’s voices being silenced when stating these very real issues regarding inequality.

The main influence of the United Kingdom’s supposed gender equality is based on the gender roles brought by cultural history. It has already been proven by countless research throughout recent history that gender equality is nowhere near a reality in any field in the UK, but the problem is not that research is lacking or not visible enough; it is that these results seem good enough to the majority of the public. Because the role of women in society is limited to being a housewife, a mother, a good daughter, and so on and so forth, being able to become anything other than these seems progressive enough. Gender equality is only accepted to certain limits; if a woman decides to work, she is free to do so as long as it does not affect her “main” role in society, which in the UK, like the rest of the world, is to eventually become a mother. “People’s attitudes on the appropriate gender division between men and women may relate to their views about whether mothers’ employment is detrimental for family life and children” (Scott and Clery, 2013, p.115), which goes to show that a woman is perceived as a mother before a human being. These gender norms also limit women in the workplace. Even if they are just as qualified as a male employee, the chances of them getting into a higher position is much less likely, because, as mentioned, work is not accepted as a priority for women. Therefore, these norms hold women back from progressing in the professional domain as well.

4. Breaking The Glass Ceiling

The glass ceiling refers to discriminatory barriers that prevent women from rising to positions of power or responsibility and advancing to higher positions within an organization simply because they are women” (Li and Leung, 2001). It is a glass ceiling because there is no actual reason, legal or written, for this discrimination is just based upon workplace prejudice. This term does not refer to the number or percentage of women in the workplace being in positions perceived as “low” or “high”; it relates to the issue of whether these women can rise in ranks and how many of them are in management positions. “In companies where there is an informal social network of senior men, women managers may not be treated in the same way as men because of lack of visibility” (Elacqua, Beehr, Hansen, Webster, 2009). When relationships outside of the workplace are also built upon these prejudices, women get pushed back even more in the workplace. Putting women in positions where they may be less visible than their male counterparts also prevents them from making connections, networking, and eventually getting promoted. In a statement released in 2011, Home Secretary of the UK encouraged companies to hire more women in management positions, stating that their goal is to reach a 25% ratio between men and women. A study done in 2021 between hundred companies showed that in the last five years, the number of women in director positions has risen by 50%. Even though government officials are mostly content with the results they have achieved, there is still a long way to go until it can be said that the glass ceiling has been completely shattered.


When discussing gender issues in the UK and South Korea, cultural differences play a big part. No matter how developed both these countries are in terms of gender equality, they are both very far from the finish line. Their conditions and the distance to a gender-equal society, however, vary because of the cultural gap between the two civilizations; the East and the West. Gender issues in both these countries differ because of their pre-existing ideas that shape their cultures, despite each being one of the most developed countries in their respective regions. This shows that no matter how integrated a nation is in a globalised world, it is still affected by its cultural determinants. When talking about gender issues in the UK, the discourse is mostly focused on topics such as equality in the workplace, equal pay, etc. while the discourse for South Korea starts with topics such as sex-selective abortions or current topics such as young female adults avoiding marriage.

Editör: Ayşenur Alişiroğlu


Chun, H. & Das Gupta, M. (2009). Gender discrimination in sex selective abortion and its transition in South Korea. Women’s Studies International Forum, 32, 89-97. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from

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