Making it as a female in Korea


The speech "Making it as a female in Korea" was delivered on 20th November 2019 at Global Seoul Center during an event organized by Lean In Korea. The other two speakers included Sunyoung Kim, CEO of FourLegs Laboratory and Sarah Soo-Kyung Henriet, Founder&CEO of Soodevie. Below is the outline of the speech.


Good evening everybody. Thank you for coming to our event.

My name is Anna Sawińska and today I’ll try to convince you that I made it as a female in Korea, and if I did, you can make it as well.

At first glance the task may seem a little daunting since I’m currently unemployed and a stay-home mom.

I’m unemployed, but happily so. So happily, in fact, that I don’t even intend to get a regular job.

So how can I say that I did make it in Korea?

Well, let me tell you my story.

I came to Korea in 2002, just after the World Cup, on a scholarship from Samsung Electronics.

As a foreigner, a novelty to the rather homogeneous landscape, I was welcomed everywhere and especially by the taxi drivers.

Unfailingly, each of them grinned happily into the rear-view mirror hearing that I was Polish.

Poland lost to Korea in the World Cup 0 to 2.

For the first two years I studied at the Korea University. The plan was for me to experience the Korean culture, and acquaint myself with the language.

The following three years I spent at Samsung Electronics, where I worked for one of the oldest and most conservative B2B departments – Telecom Infrastructure.

Among us there were hardly any women: one female engineer in technical sales, and several females on commercial side; beginners like me, or secretaries.

It was tough. Not the work itself; the work was actually interesting. I was given responsibility to develop business in the Central and Eastern European countries. I traveled a lot.

What was difficult was the working environment. Constructed for the benefit of men. For men to go up the corporate ladder.

All of us, men and women, had to stay in the office till our boss, usually a man in his 50s or 60s, left for home.

And the bosses did go home very late for there was nothing interesting for them to do at home, anyway.

Usually, these were and are women who manage the household, and this is not, as we are painfully aware, specific only to Korea.

We drank a lot, and if we did it was till morning hours; such drinking was a prerequisite to build the necessary relations, naturally, among men.

Women couldn’t drink with men alone to form those necessary relations for reasons of decency. One-on-one always had to have a sexual context.

For natural reasons women couldn’t participate in certain nocturnal activities that further cemented friendships between men, either.

When the time came to visit business karaoke or similar facility, women were charitably dismissed to go home and take a rest.

Then, there was the constant tiredness the next morning since you couldn’t say “no” to someone who offered alcohol.

And those higher in hierarchy did enjoy testing your capacity to reason and behave when under the influence. It was a favorite pastime of some of them: make you drink to assess your character’s strength.

Male employees, by sheer virtue of their physical composure, were more adept at such. In most cases that was their way of spending evenings, anyway. They were salted against it all, just like kimchi is.

Among my Korean female co-workers I was rather and exception.

I’m Polish after all.

But it was a men’s world; an army-like organization where women were allowed, even welcomed, but couldn’t really “lean in” in a way that could be deemed worthwhile.

Women were merely a civilizing force for men.

Women were the unsaid excitement for alfas and an antidote for all-male boredom.

Women, in addition to their official assignments, were a lending hand for all that was mundane.

Like buying rings on behalf of your boss for his wife's birthday, while your male co-workers contributed to the his PhD dissertation.

At some point, I had enough. I didn’t have life, I was putting my health at stake, and I realized I couldn’t possibly have a meaningful career.

I moved to Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) where I stayed for much longer.

My boss there was nothing short of visionary, the job was as far from routine as it could get,  with hardly any after-work company dinner or drinking.

At the end of my first M&A I was supposed to be dispatched to the newly acquired company in the US as an expat.

But the newly appointed CEO of the acquired company, a Korean executive of DSME who had nothing to do with the project so far, stated that as a foreigner I would not be able to represent the interests of a Korean company when abroad.

That, by being a Westerner, a white person, I would have more in common with Americans rather than Koreans, and so my true allegiance would always be in question.

To him I was a vulnerability, not an asset.  

And then there was the question of my Korean husband. How can he possibly allow his wife to go? How can he possibly leave his job and follow me?

To the executive I was nothing but a risk of flight he just wouldn’t have.

Thank you for your understanding.

At my second acquisition the situation repeated itself. My team member, a friend, a male friend, was dispatched to Canada, and I stayed behind.

He later quit, changed his nationality to Canadian and now lives happily with his wife and three children somewhere among the North American woods.

The two projects took three years of my life. They were the initial steps to implement a larger corporate strategy: the development of new green energy business area, a future growth engine for the company.

I developed a couple of more projects but, needless to say, I wasn’t dispatched anywhere for longer than two months.

At that point I had many questions, including that of my allegiance. But the question of promotion and motherhood tipped the black bitterness.

When my first promotion to senior manager was due, I was explained in very rational terms that there’s only a limited number of promotions each year, and that the promotion needs to go to those who really need them.

To those who have children and are family breadwinners. In one word: to men.

Thank you for your understanding.

All along I was, indeed, constantly asked about my own maternity plans. I was years into my marriage and childless.

What was wrong with me? Did I have a medical issue, perhaps?

At that time I didn’t have a plan to have children, and so I was reverting to the personal questions with jokes.

Once I told a high-level executive that I was too busy working for him to squeeze “out” and “in” a child. That was one of those jokes that didn’t mean to be ones exactly.

To which he asked whether I really couldn’t manage five minutes to spare with my husband in bed.

When I finally decided to become a mother, and after a year of trying I got pregnant, everybody was thrilled.

But, naturally, being pregnant and on the way out for my maternity leave, I wasn’t considered for the promotion the second year, either.

At the end of my generous maternity leave I was more than welcome to come back to work. It was my legal right after all.

However, I was offered a position at our shipyard in Okpo, Geoje Island, about 330km from Seoul.

Interestingly enough, at that time, nobody asked about my husband’s possible permission to move so far away, or whether he would possibly be willing to follow me.

It was not only me. Quite a few of my female co-workers, usually manager level and mothers like me, were done away with in this manner.

Before becoming mothers we were not fulfilling our duty towards society. There was something whimsical about us; we couldn’t be trusted.

After becoming mothers we were of no use to the company anymore. Company couldn’t possibly be our priority; with children on our lap we wouldn’t be able to sacrifice for it.

Either way we stood at the lost position by the very virtue of being born as women.

I had no choice but to quit.

I was disillusioned. I vouched to never work for a Korean company again.

Instead, I chose temporary assignments at the Delegation of the European Union. The last one I completed in October this year.

But, in all truth, I didn’t need all this bitter experience to know what the world was.

I’ve always known it’s the world devised in most part by men and imagined for men, and men only. It’s a brutal but historical fact.

So all along, I had a plan B.

Writing has always been my thing. Since childhood I ferociously wrote: if not in my secret, but not-so-secret diaries, if not for youth’s magazines, if not for competitions or beloved Polish language classes, then I carved words across my mind without realizing what I was actually doing.

I started a blog about Korea already in 2002. I described my Korean reality, the details of what I shared with you today, and all the travels I could borrow money for.

After some time the blog became reasonably popular in Poland. So much that I was invited on numerous occasions to write articles, comment on political, economic and social issues in the country.

I had two books about Korea published based on my personal and professional experiences.

Together with a friend, I recorded 38 episodes of a podcast about Korea.

In the meantime, to build a financial safety net and a steady flow of income, I set up a small guesthouse. For years I worked as a radio host at TBSeFM, promoting Korean traditional music.

In the end, I also became a mother, something that I was initially really afraid of. Something that I feared would hamper my so called “career”.

In the rat’s race, I was made to believe that I didn’t even like children.

I couldn’t have made a better decision in my life. Becoming a mother made everything even more straightforward; my priorities were finally firm and in order.

In the end, they were right. No company can ever become a priority in my life. I can never sacrifice myself for a corporate dream.

But it isn’t so because motherhood made me so.

It is so because I have other dreams.

It is so because I can contribute somewhere else in a more truthful way.

I’m currently working on my first literary novel. It’s about a young woman, born in the US to a pansori master singer, who’s returning to Korea with her mother’s ashes to find her father. The book is about us, about women.

I’ve just had another book about Korea contracted. It’s also about us, about women; about what we have to make jokes to every single day.

I am also raising a brand-new human being, my son Ethan. I raise him to be a searching man, a man who can stand for what is right.

Hopefully, a man that can play an active role in the upcoming societal change.

I learnt that there’s no such need as the need to catch up with men.

What’s needed is the need to know yourself to the very marrow of your bone, however painful that knowledge may turn out to be.

And then act upon it with all the courage and in a disciplined way.

I found my niche in this men-made and for men made world, and I used that world to advance my own cause.

This is how I made it in Korea.

This is how I have made it so far in this world as a female.

Thank you.


4 komentarze :

  1. W sumie to trochę mało optymistyczna historia Kobieta cudzoziemiec nie ma w Korei dużych szans na "wkomponowanie" się w społeczeństwo choć w porównaniu z latami 2000-2005 obecnie bardzo dużo koreanek awansuje w korporacjach no może nie na szefów biur ale na szefów działów owszem i to na przykład w całkiem męskim handlu stalą Może twoja przygoda z pracą w korporacji zaczęła się trochę za wcześnie Teraz np nie wolno pić alkoholu po pracy a kolacje kończą się o 21:00.Inaczej firma nie pokrywa kosztów. Biorąc pod uwagę twoje pochodzenie i doświadczenie a także profile aktywności firm koreańskich w Polsce chyba odnalazlabyś się w jakimś dziale Samsunga LG czy Lotte a nawet POSCO który ma działalność w Polsce. Choć inną sprawą jest to czy chciałabyś wrócić do korpo ☺️ Ale ogólnie koreańskie korpo bardzo się zmieniły przez ostatnie lata. Obserwuję sobie twoją aktywność w Korei słuchałem podcastu i trzymam kciuki za powodzenie dalszych planów życia w Korei. Pozdrawiam

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  2. Bardzo przygnębiające. Jak się pracuje w typowo męskim środowisku, doskonale rozumiem - acz muszę powiedzieć, że w Europie nie wygląda to tak źle... a może powinnam raczej użyć słów: nie wygląda to *już* tak źle. Dokonują się zmiany na lepsze - i choć są one powolne, nieraz jak po grudzie, to jednak się dzieją.

    A z innej beczki - ogromnie się ucieszyłam, widząc nową notkę, nawet jeśli tak ponurą w tonie. Bardzo lubię Cię czytać!
    Uściski
    A.I.

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  3. Przeczytałam z ogromną uwagą....i ....nic nie powiem. Pozdrawiam Panią bardzo serdecznie.Ściskam Panią. I proszę..... ma Pani piękny uśmiech więc i powody do uśmiechu się znajdą.

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  4. No nareszcie, tak długo kazałaś nam czekać.... I choć przykre to co napisałaś, to jednak się ciesze, i mam nadzieję, że mimo wszystko będziesz tu znowu częściej zaglądać.
    Pozdrawiam
    Sylwia

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