SEOUL, Nov. 14 (Yonhap) - Kwon Seon-joo, a 56-year-old seasoned banker, still vividly remembers the moment when she was promoted to the head of a Seoul branch at the Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK) as she was well aware of the prejudice against working women that runs deep in the male-dominated Korean society.
"When I got my promotion in 1998, one of my bosses made a call to me out of concern. He advised me to take a slow and careful approach to work and to pass off tough tasks to other male colleagues," said Kwon, a senior executive vice president at the state-run lender.
"I understood such concern, but at the same time, I made a firm resolution to prove that all the concerns about working women are groundless."
Kwon is one of the four female bankers in South Korea who have worked their way up to the C-suite, breaking the thick glass ceiling in the local banking sector notorious for a conservative and male-chauvinist culture.
Kwon Seon-joo, the first female senior executive vice president at the Industrial Bank of Korea (Photo courtesy of IBK)
Kwon, who joined IBK in 1978, became the bank's first female head of a regional group in 2010 and the first female senior executive vice president in 2011. She is now leading the bank's risk management division made up of about 70 employees at IBK's headquarters in Seoul.
"I was not that fast compared with my male colleagues in terms of promotion," she said. "But I did not give up. A positive way of thinking, the readiness to learn new things and meticulous preparation served as good grounds for me to meet challenges and work for a long time in one workplace."
In a departure from traditional Confucius Korean society, more and more women in Korea, powered by education, are making a splash in various fields, challenging to break the glass ceiling.
But the number of women at the senior level is still marginal in South Korea. The latest report by McKinsey & Company showed that the portion of women out of corporate executives reached a mere 2 percent in Korea in 2011, far below Asia's average of 8 percent.
The financial sector is not an exception. About 83 percent of female workers in Korea's financial industry were aged below their 30s in 2011 and women aged in their 40s and 50s or above stood at 14.8 percent and a meager 2.4 percent, respectively, according to Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training.
A lack of senior-level female workers and the conservative culture are also easily found in Korea's central bank, the Bank of Korea (BOK).
Suh Young Kyung, a 49-year-old central banker, said that the difficulty she faced when she was an entrant was to adapt to the male-dominant culture that centers heavily around networking.
"When I joined the BOK in 1988, there were only two female entrants, including me. Even the other woman left the bank later," said Suh, the director of the BOK's financial markets division. "The pool of females in the workforce was small in the past. But since 2003, the portion of women has been rising at the BOK."
According to the BOK, the number of female bankers accounted for 35.3 percent out of the newly hired for this year, up from about 16 percent in 2003.
Suh Young Kyung, the director of the Bank of Korea's financial markets division (Yonhap)
Suh doesn't have an executive-level post at the BOK, but her position is currently the highest that a female central banker in Korea has ever taken.
She currently heads the BOK's key division dealing with the open market operations and monitoring the financial markets. Suh is also only female BOK official joining the central bank's rate-setting meeting.
She said that the growing number of women has passed the BOK's high entrance barrier but is still low compared with other central banks.
"At international conferences, I have witnessed active performances by other female central bankers. Central banks in Southeast Asian countries have a group of female bankers, including high-ranking officials," Suh noted.
Kwon and Suh said that women's sense of flexibility and concentration could serve as good grounds to display their capacity in the financial sector.
"Women's purchasing power is rapidly growing. If local banks do not properly cater to female customers, they could have difficulties in doing the retail banking service down the road," Kwon added. "More feminine touch will be needed in the banking sector. In that sense, female bankers can contribute to tapping these clients."
Suh said that the central bank might be a good choice for female job seekers as women's sense of persistence and prudence fit well into research work.
"It was rewarding that my devotion to research for capital flows in emerging countries helped pave the way for the country's macro-prudential measures to be fleshed out," she noted.
Behind their success also lies the families' understanding and their grueling struggle to juggle work and home. Many working mothers have to endure a delay in promotion and unseen disadvantages in their careers due to delivery and childrearing.
"Despite the government's policies to promote gender equality, working women in Korea are facing challenges to juggle work and family as the society and companies' understanding about them is still lacking," said Yang In-sook, a research fellow at the Korean Women's Development Institute.
Yang said that unless more state-backed systemic child-care schemes are drawn up and social awareness is raised, the glass ceiling will not be easily shattered in Korea.
Despite tough roads ahead, Kwon and Suh still believe that the glass ceiling is coming down, albeit slowly.
"I expect that there will be no difficulty for more women to climb high on the corporate ladder within five years as I have seen rapid changes in a quite short period so far," Kwon said.
"Always prepare and build up your capacity. Then, you can seize an opportunity," the IBK executive said as advice for female junior bankers.