Women in East Asia Job Market: How hard it is to make a work-family balance?


I Will Not Work Overtime, Period, the recently topical Japanese drama focusing on over work hours in tech companies brought our attention to an interesting topic in Eastern Asia countries: women’s struggle in work-family balance. Yae Shizugatake, a new mother who went back to work without even using up her maternity leave, is so afraid of being left behind: “A female employee who has children will always be judged. People would say that if her child has any minor sickness, she will choose to go home immediately as she will always put her family and child as a priority. Therefore, you cannot trust her and let her take important responsibilities. If I am a man, there is no such thing. A man is not expected to take over family responsibilities and there will be no problem at work at all.” It is not surprising to us that women have to bear more for families, but women in Eastern Asia are expected way more.

Rapid modernization has enabled Eastern Asia countries, especially Japan, South Korea, and China to provide their citizens with improved living standards and increased economic opportunities. Yet this process has yielded uneven gains between men and women. According to World Economy Forum Gender Gap Report 2018, across all 149 countries assessed, China, Japan, and South Korea were ranked 103rd, 110th, 115th separately in global gender index, while they remained three among the last five positions in East Asia and The Pacific region.

Given a detailed view into work-family balance, unpaid care work (refers to all unpaid services provided within a household for its members) and women’s economic empowerment are two important indicators. Take China as an example. In 2017, 61.5% of women participated in China’s labor force, which is higher than OECD members’ 52.02%. However, the mean time of unpaid work for women in China is 27.3 hours per week, higher than men’s 10.6 hours. OECD finds out that in general, gender gaps in unpaid care work begin at an early age for girls and boys, increasing for women at marriage and childbirth. For men, however, marriage may actually decrease their time spent on unpaid care work: married men spend less time on routine housework than single men do, remaining huge unpaid work hours difference by gender in Eastern Asia if all other factors stay the same. At the same time, the barrier facing women getting into senior positions at work is often related to their family responsibilities.

Although East Asian countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea have indeed enacted legislation and policies, such as maternity leave to protect the employment rights of pregnant women and women with family responsibilities, employer bias and actual family commitment have created glass ceilings for many women to attract work.

The gender bias and discrimination is in fact closely related to East Asian cultural characteristics and social stereotypes. Many East Asians, including women, still believe that women should be primarily responsible for housework and caring for husbands and children in the family. With the increase in the number of dual-earner families in East Asia, men and women in society today combine their social roles as paid workers, spouses, and parents. For women in East Asian countries, the participation of multiple social actors is particularly tense, as the responsibility for balancing work and family needs falls disproportionately on them. In the end, when middle-aged women find it difficult to balance their work and families, the strong “go

back to home where women belongs to” voice in the society is also advising that professional women in East Asia should prioritize their family instead of promotion opportunities, and that men at home can be the only income source in the family.

This long-lasting high demand for women’s full responsibilities in family life has already had a major negative impact on the gender equality of workplaces in East Asian societies and has already created a vicious circle. A large number of women leaving their jobs after marriage have caused employers to be reluctant to hire women since they have a high probability of leaving after marriage. Further, the cause of women’s career development is generally limited, and the cost of women giving up their careers is therefore lower. Yet for men, there will be more career opportunities and promotion possibilities. Men are expected to take the responsibility of raising a whole family, and it is more inclined to advocate a large number of women to “go back home” after marriage.

In the traditional East Asian work and family model, not only can women not plan their careers and lives according to their own interests, but men are also overwhelmed by the burden of the entire family. As in I Will Not Work Overtime, Period, Yae Shizugatake’s husband who was on maternity leave in order to take care of his child after his wife went back to work was judged because many people under Eastern Asia culture would think that men taking care of children is a manifestation of a unsuccessful career. Therefore, the imbalance of work and family responsibilities for women is calling the respect for women economic empowerment and the redefinition of women’s value, otherwise, both men and women in East Asian societies will keep suffering from the high-pressure social and family environments.


-Xue Feng