Korea: Women lawyers lag behind male counterparts in senior roles in the profession

Sunday 14 April 2024

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The International Bar Association (IBA) Legal Policy & Research Unit (LPRU) has released the Republic of Korea Results Report (the ‘Report’) that looks into gender disparity at senior levels of the legal profession in Korea. Despite there having been a rise in the number of women lawyers in Korea since the end of the last century, the data informing the report revealed that women are still vastly under-represented at all levels of the legal profession in Korea. Written by the Gender Equality Centre of the Korean Bar Association (KBA) the Report is the seventh in a series to be published by the IBA and the LexisNexis Rule of Law Foundation as part of the 50:50 by 2030: A longitudinal study into gender disparity in law.

Sara Carnegie, IBA Legal Projects Director, said: ‘We are enormously grateful to the Korean Bar Association for taking the lead on this report, and providing such in depth analysis of the data collected. The Republic of Korea report provides an excellent example of how collaboration with IBA member bars can broaden the reach of this project, enhancing its impact and offering insights into new jurisdictions. We extend our thanks to the KBA and encourage other bars to get involved.’

Young Hoon Kim, President of the KBA, commented: ‘The KBA has been honoured to assist in this important study, gathering data from across our profession in the hope of furthering gender parity in the law. Despite a significant upsurge in the number of women training to be lawyers since the 1990s, female representation at the senior level is still sorely lacking. We must address the root causes of this disparity, challenge widespread cultural norms and champion lasting change.’

KBA research shows that in 2023 there were 28,118 lawyers practising in the Republic of Korea, of which 8,269 were women (29 per cent). In comparison to data in other reports published in the 50:50 by 2030 project series, female representation in the legal profession in Korea lags behind the Netherlands (57 per cent), Chile (56 per cent), Spain (54 per cent), England and Wales (51 per cent) and Nigeria (40 per cent).

Other key results for Korea from the survey include:

  • in law firms, women make up 25 per cent of the workforce but only hold 13 per cent of senior posts;
  • in the corporate sector, 28 per cent of all in-house lawyers are women but the figure drops to 12 per cent at senior positions;
  • in the public sector, 35 per cent of lawyers are women with 29 per cent in high-level roles;
  • the judiciary is comprised of 35 per cent women with 27 per cent holding senior roles;
  • in law firms, flexible working was the most popular initiative to address gender disparity; and
  • in public bodies and companies, gender sensitive education and training for male and female lawyers was the most popular initiative.

In addition:

  • only 44 per cent of law firms monitor gender balance in the workplace;
  • sixty per cent of companies, almost all public sector bodies and the judiciary monitor gender balance;
  • twelve per cent of law firms surveyed employ part time lawyers, compared with 14 per cent in the corporate sector; and
  • in the public sector and the judiciary, there were no part time lawyers or judges recorded amongst respondents.

To address the imbalances, there is recognition that steps need to be taken to foster a more inclusive environment for women legal professionals, introduce flexible work arrangements, establish and implement parental leave policies, and to expand childcare facilities. The Korean Bar Association is taking a number of steps and inaugurated its Gender Equality Centre to conduct research and training in gender equality in the legal profession. Also, between 2017 and 2022, the Korean Government worked on a five-year plan to improve the number of practising female lawyers, specifically in the public sector. The number of female lawyers in the public sector is higher at 35 per cent compared to the average of 29 per cent of other law sectors. The campaign may have had an effect.

From a foreword to the Report, Sung Hee Kwon, General Manager of the KBA’s Gender Equality Centre, stated: ‘The public sector has benefitted from the Korean government’s policy to improve female representation. The statistics from law firms and in-house counsel show a much gloomier picture, with lower female representation in the legal profession and less women holding senior positions. All the figures urge the country to do more. According to the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum in 2022, the Republic of Korea remains almost at the bottom.’

Background to the 50:50 by 2030: A longitudinal study into gender disparity in law:

It is a nine-year global project, conceived by IBA President Almudena Arpón de Mendívil Aldama and launched in 2021. President Arpón de Mendívil stated at its inception: ‘Despite good intentions, despite the merits and talent of so many women, we still don’t reach the most senior positions across the legal sector mainly due to discriminatory obstacles placed in our paths. This directly clashes with the principles defended by our profession. The legal sector cannot afford this contradiction and should lead by example. With the benefit of raised general awareness around discrimination, it is time for increased action. Through the “50:50 by 2030” global study the IBA aspires to build global empirical evidence on the barriers causing the disparity in figures between women and men in senior roles and to put forward remedies to rectify the situation in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality. We are committed to developing solutions that will bring about lasting change to reflect the broader profession and society as a whole.’

To date (April 2024), six reports have been published (in chronological order) for the jurisdictions of England and Wales, Uganda and Spain in 2022, and Nigeria, the Netherlands and Chile in 2023.

The project, led by the IBA LPRU and the IBA Diversity and Inclusion Council, with support and input from the BA Women Lawyers’ Committee, has benefitted from the efforts of colleagues in other jurisdictions where complimentary initiatives to enhance gender parity in the law have provided valuable opportunities for collaboration. A new case study on professional development training for women in the Nepalese legal profession, produced by DLA Piper’s nonprofit affiliate New Perimeter, was released at the end of 2023 in partnership with the 50:50 by 2030 project.

Stakeholders wanting to be involved in producing a case study on gender balance in the legal profession in a respective jurisdiction should contact: sara.carnegie@int-bar.org.


Notes to the Editor

  1. Methodology:
    Between 18 May and 5 July 2023, as part of the IBA Gender Equality in Law Project, the Korean Bar Association’s Gender Equality Centre conducted a survey on female representation in senior positions within various legal workplaces including the top 49 law firms (based on the number of lawyers), 69 companies (legal and human resources (HR) teams), five public bodies (National Tax Service, Ministry of Justice, Seoul Metropolitan Government, Korea Legal Aid Corporation and Korea Government Legal Service), the Constitutional Court (HR team at Administration Management Bureau), the Judiciary (Director General for Personnel Affairs under the Supreme Court’s Administration Office) and the Prosecutors’ Office (Prosecution Bureau under Ministry of Justice).

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