South Korea has long been one of the most male-dominated societies in the world, but Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon hopes to begin changing that image. Three years ago, he launched the Women Friendly Seoul Project, a set of initiatives aimed at improving both the quality of daily life and long-term political opportunities for the capital’s female residents. The mayor, who recently won reelection, talked about the project with NEWSWEEK’s Richard M. Smith. Excerpts:
Is there any “quality of life” project that you’re particularly proud of?
The changes may seem trivial, but consider, for example, how restrooms are organized…there are always longer waiting lines in front of the women’s restrooms because the regulations stated that the men’s and women’s rooms should be equal in total area. That actually means fewer toilets for women and, because women take longer, less efficiency. That’s why we’re making more toilets for women. Also, when we build new restrooms in the subway, we put them where women can have easy access and where there’s enough security and light, so women won’t be afraid to enter.
You are also interested in creating more jobs for women. Could you explain the “mom is excited” project?
Women experience career discontinuity because of marriage and childbirth, but when the children are old enough to be taken care of by someone else, it is difficult for women to return to their former jobs. The aim of this project is to wake up the sleeping qualifications and retrain women to be equipped to levels of competency needed by employers.
Have you encountered any opposition from the city bureaucracy?
Everybody understands that this project represents a necessary paradigm shift if we are to become a successful society in the future. The only problem was that [some officials] weren’t equipped with a new mindset, a new way of thinking. We have 15,000 people working at City Hall, more than 130 divisions. Above the director level, most are men. That gender ratio will change, but for now, [male officials] didn’t know how to change policies to make them more women-friendly. They just kept doing what they had done before. To address the problem, I mandated that people come up with new ideas and introduced the concept of “women-friendly city companions”—a group of advisers that help city officials to reflect women’s perspectives in policymaking.
What other ways are you using gender-sensitivity training?
Let’s take apartment buildings. We need to design residential areas in a way that makes women feel safe when entering an apartment complex or an elevator. Unless the people responsible for these policies or designs always keep in mind the importance of making people, especially women, feel safe, it is difficult to achieve it. In the past, these policymakers…did not think that making women feel safe and comfortable was an important part of their job. We had to change that very thinking.
On a scale of one to ten, how do you rate women’s progress in terms of political participation?
I’d rate progress at five, about halfway, but there is much room for improvement. If we look at the City Council and the National Assembly, we have changed the system to encourage women’s participation. Now it’s about 20 to 30 percent in both.
You’ve said there are more women at the entry level. Do you think there will soon be more women in middle and upper management?
Yes, I think it will happen within 10 years. But the assistant mayor here with us today says that half of the officials above the director level will be women within five years.