Category: Presentations given by Dr Hilty

‘Better to be Born a Cow than a Woman’

The historical figure of Kim Mandeok [Jeju Island, Korea] provides a model for today’s women, with timeless and universal themes such as women’s empowerment, gender equality, and social responsibility in the form of compassionate yet pragmatic philanthropy, for a more equitable distribution of wealth and global poverty reduction.

Women’s Empowerment: Jeju-style, Part 3

(For Parts 1 and 2, see previous posts.)

And so, we can view the 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles within the context of Jeju’s cultural heritage:

  1. “Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality”: For Jeju, place emphasis on the traditionally matrifocal and egalitarian cultural principles, reviving and even modernizing the goddess mythology;

  1. “Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination”: For Jeju, emphasize the traditional communal labor practices and reorganize them to fit modern society; also, support and increase the current peace and human rights initiatives;

  1. “Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers”: For Jeju, expand upon the “eochongye” model of collective economics which also provides for the well-being of its workers, including retirees and those in need; and, provides support to those of lesser skill;

  1. “Promote education, training and professional development for women”: For Jeju, continue to emphasize the Confucian value of lifelong education; provide a variety of business and leadership courses for women [such as a recent training course for female CEOs and entrepreneurs, provided by Jeju Small and Medium Business Administration];

  1. “Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women”: For Jeju, this is also an expansion of the “eochongye” model, in particular as it relates to the diving women’s economic cooperatives and decision-making processes; additionally, emphasize Jeju women’s self-reliance and independence, and provide networking opportunities;

  1. “Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy”: For Jeju, re-conceptualize the island-wide system of small villages with their local councils, applying ideas of “town hall” and “community” also to city life and provincial governance; secondly, make the best use of strong community bonds known as ‘kwendang’; thirdly, support relevant NGOs and similar structures, and develop new ones as needed;

  1. “Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality”: For Jeju, utilize and perhaps even coordinate the island’s numerous research institutes [NGOs, private and public] and government initiatives.


Each principle can be supported by an existing or traditional feature of Jeju’s culture, if highlighted and enhanced for this purpose. This also reorders features of Jeju’s traditional culture in modern terms, which may serve the purpose of cultural preservation and encourage a renewed value of traditions.

There is no need to invent new ways of empowering women. Nor is it appropriate to import methods from another, remarkably different culture.

Rather, a strengths-based model such as this begins with an analysis of the culture within which women are to be further empowered, looking at both positive and negative features of that culture.

Then, for maximum results and cooperation among both women and men, we must creatively build upon that foundation – finding methods to strengthen women’s position in the society which draw from the attributes that women already have, and other methods to understand, decrease and ultimately eliminate those features which stand in their way.

The most important consideration should be the cultural features to be found in each region.


On Jeju, it has been said for some time that Seolmundae Halmang, the island’s giant, grandmotherly, yet all-powerful creator Goddess, is sleeping.

In the words of Korean scholar and mythologist Koh Hea Kyoung, from her nationally recognized 2010 book on Jeju’s creator goddess Seolmundae, “In the Beginning was the Goddess”:

“Discovering great goddesses from the beginning of the world and reviving them in today’s world is my dream as well as the path to a new era – when reason and emotion, humans and nature, and men and women can co-exist in true harmony.”

For the empowerment and equality of Jeju women, to the benefit of both women and men: it is time to awaken Seolmundae Halmang.

Women’s Empowerment: Jeju-style, Part 2

(For Part 1, see previous post.)

There are several dominant influences in Jeju society which must be considered in order to achieve true empowerment for Jeju women: Goddess mythology, Shamanism, Neo-Confucianism, collective labor practices, invasions and assaults, poverty and recent affluence.

The first consideration is the conflict between the relatively recent emphasis on a Neo-Confucian, patriarchal social structure and a much older heritage of Goddess mythology and shamanic practices. The latter, coupled with the labor tradition of the diving women, had once resulted in an egalitarian and even matrifocal traditional culture.

Jeju Island’s creation myth is that of a giant goddess, the grandmother of all, Seolmundae Halmang. Numerous other goddesses can be found in the mythology of Jeju’s traditional culture, indicating the psychological underpinnings of the Jeju woman’s strength.

In the Neo-Confucianism that took particular stronghold in Korea approximately 5 centuries ago, and on Jeju more recently, the woman is relegated to a secondary role in the society. The hierarchy of this social structure also carries over into the workplace, which keeps working women at an artificially lower status.

On the positive side, Confucian ideals support lifelong education, something valued quite highly throughout Korean society.

Communal labor methods in the villages, a requirement for survival in this once harsh landscape and climate, represent a second consideration. A variety of practices such as anchovy harvesting, fishing and diving, farming, millstone grinding, and more resulted in strong community bonds and required women to work side-by-side with men. With modern technology and the decrease in these practices, there is far less need for communal labor and economic cooperatives, though the legacy remains.

Korea’s emphasis on militarism since the war of the mid-20th century, coupled with Jeju’s multiple historic assaults including mass executions in 1948~53 by Korean military forces, have exaggerated the insularity of this island community. It is valid to say that Jeju’s society is inwardly focused, somewhat resistant to outside influence, and self-reliant as a result. A powerful commitment to peace and human rights initiatives has also emerged.

In Korea, including Jeju, corporations and government are typically modeled after the military system to which all young men are conscripted and of which women for the most part have no knowledge or experience – a distinct disadvantage for women in the workplace.

Finally, Jeju has historically been an impoverished island, largely as a result of its isolation and harsh climate. In modern times, due to both industrial and technological advances as well as a shifting economic focus, this is no longer the case. The conflict between poverty consciousness and frugality versus relative affluence and comfort is another factor for consideration.


Several initiatives are underway to improve the status of Jeju women.

A women’s special committee has existed in Jeju government for several years. Since 2006, when Jeju became a more self-governing region, women have been appointed to five council seats out of the 44 in total. Recently, a women’s special committee has also been formed within the council. The Seolmundae Women’s Center, named for the island’s creator goddess, is a government-sponsored facility.

Jeju has a longstanding NGO women’s association which focuses on policy, and another which provides shelter and counseling to women in need. There is a center for single mothers with multiple supportive features. A branch of the YWCA provides many programs for women; a variety of private women’s organizations also exists, including a branch of BPW which places emphasis on the Women’s Empowerment Principles as designed by the UN.

One exciting new government initiative, the Jeju Women’s Governance Forum, includes members from a variety of sectors and is focused on education, research, networking, and policy determination.


(Part 3 to follow.)

Women’s Empowerment: Jeju-style, Part 1

I’d like to talk to you about Women’s Empowerment Principles, within the context of culture.

Women’s Empowerment Principles, known as WEP, were co-created by two United Nations organizations: UN Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM; and, UN Global Compact.

UN Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses around the world which base their economic principles on universally accepted standards of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption.

UNIFEM is now a part of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women. The six focus areas of UN Women include prevention of violence against women, peace and security issues, leadership and participation, national planning and budgeting, economic empowerment, and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

The WEP were launched in March of 2010 on International Women’s Day, for the purpose of achieving economic equality for women across the globe. They are based on an earlier version known as the Calvert Women’s Principles, developed in 2004.

Many women’s organizations around the world have adopted these principles. One such example is Business and Professional Women International, known as BPW, an NGO which began in 1930 and now has member groups in 80 countries on 5 continents.

The 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles are:

  1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality;
  2. Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination;
  3. Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers;
  4. Promote education, training, and professional development for women;
  5. Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women;
  6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy;
  7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

These 7 empowerment principles, however, while designed to be globally applicable, cannot simply be applied as is to each cultural setting. It’s imperative that they be made as culturally relevant as possible in order to achieve maximum success in outcome.

The principles can serve as goals. The objectives – the steps taken to achieve each of these goals – can and must differ from one location to the next.

Thus, as a so-called “western woman” living in Asia, as a professional with a keen interest in culture and how it affects the individual and societal psyche, I would ask each of you: when contemplating how best to achieve these very worthy goals in your country: how can you work within your own cultural matrix in order to effect change?


Jeju women have a longstanding reputation of strength. “The Strong Jeju Woman” is legendary. Feminists in Korea’s mainland point to Jeju women as an example of indigenous feminism. Words like “matriarchy” and “amazonian” have been frequently – if erroneously – employed.

On Jeju, scholars, feminists, and professional women question this identification somewhat.

It’s surely true that the women of this island – and, without a doubt, those of many societies that have endured hardship – share qualities of diligence, fortitude, and courage.

It’s also true that, within the societies of Jeju’s famed diving women, highly structured economic cooperatives and collaborative labor practices have long existed, and women have historically been the backbone of Jeju’s economy.

Thus, Jeju women value independence, individualism, strong will and a certain freedom of thought in ways that differ from their mainland counterparts.

As an example, Jeju women grow up expecting to work – and state that they feel they would be a disappointment to their parents, grandparents, and in-laws, if they did not. They also typically continue working well into their elder years. This is a marked cultural distinction from peninsular Korea.

Women within Korean society, and certainly in Jeju, also wield a great deal of power in matters of the household.

And so, to an outsider, this can look like economic equality. The diving women once represented a primary occupation of Jeju, their history stretching back approximately 2000 years. While it is very difficult and dangerous work, these women of Jeju nevertheless have historically enjoyed a good deal of economic equality and even superiority to men.

This, however, does not represent true equality.

Aside from the labor collectives, Jeju women have not yet attained substantial positions of leadership within the society. Indeed, even within those collectives known as “eochongye” which govern the work of fishermen and diving women and typically have more female than male members, fewer than 20% of the top leaders are female.

In Jeju society, there are also comparatively few female CEOs or top-level managers in corporations. In the several hundred villages throughout Jeju Island, women are also not made chiefs of the village councils.

In government, there are very few females in management positions. And no woman has ever actually been elected to public office, though Jeju legislation now provides for the appointment of five women to the Provincial Council.

Further, although Jeju women have historically contributed strongly to the economy of Jeju, today women throughout Korea are ranked in last position of OECD member nations for the status of women in business, in categories of gender-based wage gap, employment of women, and senior management positions held by women.

According to recent surveys, Jeju is ranked first for the greatest wage gap between men and women among Korea’s 16 provinces, and 10th for the percentage of women in council or public administration.

Therefore, even for such strong women, there is still a great deal of progress to be made before it can be said that any true measure of equality and economic sustainability has been achieved. In actuality, as Jeju’s economy has shifted away from agriculture and fishery to one of tourism and industry, the economic power of Jeju women has diminished.

In the past two years, according to regional statistics, the percentage of Jeju women in the workforce has actually decreased.

And the daughters, the next generation of Jeju women? As the element of hardship and adversity decreases in this increasingly affluent and modernized, technologically driven society, mothers express concern that their daughters want easy lives and lack the strength of their forebears.

(Part 2 to follow.)