I am a qualitative sociologist who studies gender inequality in the context of East Asia, mainly focusing on contemporary Korea. Substantive areas which I intend to continue pursuing include gender, feminism, work, family, and social class. My research combines diverse methodological approaches including qualitative analysis and historical analysis, with a focus on contemporary Korea and Japan.
Gender, Class, and Work
Despite increases in women’s education levels and labor force participation in postindustrial societies, important divergences remain. First, international differences persist in wages and in the division of unpaid and paid labor based on gender. Second, there are substantial societal differences in women’s employment at the time of marriage or of childbearing. Third, there is divergence in women’s work and family formation according to their socioeconomic class and such divergence differs across societies. For a sociologist who aims to study the process leading to gender and class inequality in the labor market, the cultural, social, economic, and political forces behind these cross-country similarities and differences in women’s lives are important uncharted territory.
Emphasizing how gender intersects with socioeconomic background, my co-author, Kathleen McGinn (Harvard), and I document class-based differences in women’s experiences at work and at home. In a published review article in Current Opinion in Psychology, we demonstrate how recent research shows that gender–class differences are reflected in women’s employment beliefs and behaviors. Middle- and upper-class women working in male-dominated workplaces, living in households in which the wife’s employment may be optional and parenting in communities in which intensive parenting is valued, may uphold gendered ideals of women as communal and other-oriented. Lower-class women working in female-dominated occupations, living in households with limited financial resources and parenting in communities where financial independence is valued, face heightened emphasis on the need to look after one’s own interests. Thus, the self-other orientations of low-income women may defy expectations based on gender as well as those based on class. To better understand how both women and men construct meanings regarding the self and other in employment contexts, we stress that future research needs to go beyond categorizations based solely on class to build toward a gendered-class framework.
Cultural understandings also shape gender and class variation in workforce participation. One working paper, currently under review at Qualitative Sociology (Revise & Resubmit status), questions why attitudes about working mothers have changed more slowly than many other gender-role attitudes. In particular, by shedding light on the process of collecting and recollecting research on mothers’ impact on children, this study connects what individuals believe to be objective knowledge with persisting negative views of maternal employment. Analysis of 63 in-depth interviews demonstrates that most people differentiate their gender-role attitudes from their perspectives on mothers’ employment. Interviewees refer to scientific findings, expert opinions, and other “objective” sources for their views of maternal employment. Furthermore, compared to childless men, childless women engage in significantly more ‘knowledge work’ that collects and recollects research on parenting. These processes have behavioral consequences: Women gather this knowledge, rather than men; the result of this knowledge-work, however, is that women see ramping down as the best alternative.
One of my studies aims to understand in what context women make different work decisions after motherhood. In the context of contemporary Korea where overwork is the norm, childcare support from extended families has been critical for mothers to stay in the workforce. By looking at how women - with different educational attainment levels - use close ties, mainly family, this study, published at Gender & Society, develops the idea of deservingness to explain how Korean women make sense of their work decisions and define who should work as a mother. Although the literature includes numerous studies demonstrating the positive relationship between kin-based childcare support and women’s employment, there is a gap regarding why and how women decide to seek such help. Based on interview data, I find that a woman asks for childcare support only when she constructs strong career aspirations and generates agreement amongst her family that she deserves support. Women’s explanations of who deserves to work and to receive childcare support vary based on their educational background: less-educated women mainly use the logic of economic stability, whereas better-educated women predominately use the symbolic meaning of maintaining their status in the public sphere. Commonly, however, most women, regardless of their background, feel the need to “prove” to themselves and to their family members that they have jobs that are worth keeping and thus that they “deserve” childcare support. In this paper, I develop the theory of deservingness to explain how women account for their work and make work decisions.
Focusing on how social policies shape gender inequality in the labor market, an in-progress paper, currently under review, with Eunmi Mun (UIUC) examines how mothers use leave policies. From the planning stage to deciding the optimal length of leave to deciding when to go back to work, we show that work-family policies shape how women interpret their roles as mothers and workers. However, a woman’s judgment of the appropriate length for her leave is highly contingent on her workplace conditions and on the work itself. Findings show that paid maternal leave enables more women who aspire to stay in the labor market to do so, but when they return from leave, they aspire to commit to work more than others in order to compensate for their absence. In the end, some women quit not mainly due to increased demands from the home, but mainly due to having a strengthened worker ideology, an ideology they feel unable to fulfill.
One of my future projects on gender, class, and work centers on the social problems resulting from the cultural expectations of a “superwoman,” – an emerging ideology that morally obliges women to succeed both as a mother and as a worker. Such a superwoman schema stresses both the production and reproduction expected of a nation’s women, discourse that has been increasing in almost all postindustrial societies. Earlier last year, a Korean working mother died from overwork (known in Japanese as karoshi), which led one presidential candidate to propose the Anti-Superwoman Act, criticizing not only the intense workplace culture and long hours, but also unequal division of childcare labor. Exploring commonality and variation across societies, I aim to explore how the superwoman discourse is created by and exacerbates gender inequality as well as how it creates problems such as mental and physical health inequalities.
Social Mobility, Women, and Family in South Korea
Connected to my research focus of studying the lives of women to understand systems of stratification, one array of my studies uses feminist theories and historical context to understand social mobility and women’s status in contemporary Korea. Since the advance in the literatures of social mobility using multigenerational surveys and census data, scholars have made enormous progress in our knowledge about social inequality and change. However, theories and empirical research have been dominated by the father-son linkage, leaving a massive gap regarding the lives of women. Aiming to reopen the study on subjective experiences of upward mobility and on analyses of gender in the literature of social mobility and status, my current and future projects examine how women experience mobility and seek status over the life course in the context of contemporary Korea. Furthermore, this line of work investigates how women define success and achievement.
After the Korean War in 1953, Korea experienced rapid modernization, which included industrialization, democratization, and educational expansion. As one of the main results of social change, female labor market participation among childless women increased dramatically, as did female educational attainment, with more than 70 percent of women in their late 20s completing tertiary education in 2017. Yet Korea ranks the lowest among postindustrial countries in terms of gender equality, in particular regarding the motherhood wage penalty and an unequal division of housework and childcare labor (OECD 2012). Under these circumstances, approximately half of the female population in the age range for marriage and childbearing participate in the workforce, whereas the other half stay home. Using Korea as a research setting, my dissertation project explores how Korean women define success and make work decisions after motherhood. From the stance of women, this study contributes to the array of existing studies on cultural and structural processes behind persisting gender inequality and widening class inequality in the labor market. In designing my research and questionnaires, I conducted pilot interviews and an online survey of 1,100 mothers. The primary analysis is based on 100 subsequent in-depth interviews with mothers who had at least one preschool child but come from different family backgrounds, educational levels, and career trajectories.
My book manuscript that has resulted from my dissertation project examines how women experience social mobility in the context of rapid modernization, including the expansion of higher education. This study, “Daughters of the Han River: Nation, Gender, and Status in Contemporary Korea” explains how married mothers in Korea, sandwiched between increasing opportunities for educational attainment and persistent constraints in the workforce, make sense of their world and make hard decisions about their employment.
This study demonstrates how Korean women born in the 1980s benefited, but were constrained by the ideology of intensive motherhood - a belief system that a mother must be the central caregiver who devotes copious time, energy, and material resources to her child. Although Korea has the highest female educational attainment in the world for young adults, the high level of educational attainment has yet to translate into better labor market outcomes for women. Based on 100 in-depth interviews with highly educated mothers with young children, this study shows how highly educated Korean women’s identities and subjectivities are in transition and are far from monolithic. A majority of women perceive that they were raised to be successful and high achieving, but also to be good mothers who sacrifice their own desires and aspirations for their children. Ironically, adult-daughters with highly educated mothers suffered from the expectation that women must employ their skills and abilities in raising successful children rather than in participating in the workforce. Only a group of “uber” successful women who attended high-prestige universities or are employed in prestigious firms or occupations developed strong career aspirations. This study argues that education may be less of a resource for reducing gender inequality in the modern world unless there is a fundamental ideological shift in defining female achievement.
The core issue in this book project is how women define success and struggle to seek status in a society. Situating an analysis of women’s everyday lives in the sociological literatures on social class, mobility, and feminism, I empirically challenge stereotypical images of women as passive seekers of status who try to “marry up” or to raise a child who can maintain the family’s status by excelling in school. Instead, I take a new direction in the sociology of family and intergenerational mobility by examining how contemporary women’s identities and subjectivities are affected by their close ties, mainly through their extended families. I argue that in Korea, these women’s perceptions of achievement and their career aspirations have been shaped by their own mothers’ lives and lack of resources. The mother-daughter bond mediates the structural and cultural constraints and opportunities not only by providing financial and physical support for higher education and childcare, but also by normatively influencing what it means to be successful as a woman and as a person.
This study aims to advance the scholarship on women in Korea and social mobility by exploring two important lacunas in the literature. First, because studies on women’s work do not identify a woman’s social origin as one of the salient determinants of her work decisions after motherhood and because work on stratification has focused mainly on resource transfers from fathers to sons, traditional studies on stratification neglect how and where female achievement becomes part of a family’s social status. Second, because social position is not static throughout one’s life, investigation confined to either the influence of social origins (an ascribed status) or the influence of educational attainment (an acquired status) has limited value for our understanding of how the gap between the ascribed and acquired status shapes status seeking process of individuals. Through this study, I critically intervene in the mobility literature by making salient women’s experiences and identifying the role of the mother-daughter relationship in the production and reproduction of social class.
Gender Revolution and Family in East Asia
In postindustrial societies, the second half of the 20th century saw considerable changes in families. Demographers have demonstrated causal and consequential inferences behind the changing dynamics of the modern family. One is the trend of low fertility in East Asia and some European countries, which has generated a large body of research. Another is the increasing proportion of the population that marries according to similar socio-economic status (assortative marriage). Lastly, the achievement gap and unequal distribution of early childhood education, a critical social problem, has been widening in many post-industrial societies. To contribute to this literature on family and social demography, I use a qualitative approach in which I explore the processes that lead to the decision- and meaning-makings of individuals.
Currently the dominant theory to explain low fertility in postindustrial societies is gender equity theory, which attributes low fertility to the mismatch in the levels of gender equality women experience in the public and private spheres. This theory deviates from others in assuming that low fertility is driven not by individuals’ decreased desire to have children but instead by the structural contradictions in women’s roles and the slower pace of change toward gender equity in the private sphere in contrast to the public sphere. Using this theoretical framework, research on gender equality and fertility has flourished, generally finding a positive link at the aggregate macro level. However, micro-level studies that use individual-level survey data have found complicated and mixed results. More importantly, what we do not know related to this topic is how the labor market structure, working conditions, and employment situation of the couples - which is not static – interact with each other.
In a co-authored paper, currently under review at American Journal of Sociology (Revise & Resubmit status), Mary Brinton (Harvard) and I aim to fill this gap by investigating how couples develop their fertility intentions in conjunction with their employment conditions and plans and how household division of labor and workplace norms interact with this process. We use in-depth interviews with 180 highly educated men and women living in urban Korea and Japan, where the total fertility rates are among the lowest in the world. Our findings show that couple-level dynamics are the opposite of what macro-level studies have found: gender-egalitarian couples have much lower fertility intentions than couples who maintain the traditional gendered division of labor. More importantly, couples make decisions about fertility while also responding to highly demanding workplaces. Therefore, the extremely imbalanced division of labor at home as well as workplace norms and expectations together push couples to adjust either the wife’s employment or the couple’s fertility intentions. This paper makes an intervention in the current low-fertility literature, which has been dominated by gender equity theory, by introducing a contextual analysis of the rigid labor market structure and working environment in an age of insecurity.
One of my working papers titled, “Exchanging Apples with Oranges,” explores the contested meanings of marriage and partnership. Based on interviews with college-educated women who married similarly educated men – those with a college degree -- in urban Korea, the findings show that the ways in which women define a good partnership are not monolithic. Some challenge the idea of marrying up or choosing a partner mainly by socio-economic background. These women stress that gender egalitarian couple-hood is their top priority for falling in love and for forming a family. Other women consider the unequal division of housework and childcare labor based on gender as a default situation. These women rationalize and interpret that it is a ‘smart’ choice to marry a man who can be the long-term breadwinner. Opening up the black box in the literature about how individuals construct meanings of couple-hood and make marital decisions, this working paper demonstrates that there are not only values related to socio-economic status but also cultural factors such as gender egalitarianism that structure the process of finding the right partner.
In one of my dissertation chapters, a book chapter forthcoming in Korean Families Yesterday and Today, I investigate a classical research topic in sociology: class-based differences in childrearing. Challenging the monolithic description of Asian mothers as authoritative, obsessive educators, I ask how economic resources and the mobilization of information shape divergent childrearing strategies. Based on interviews and field notes, findings show that highly educated mothers use a wider variety of social and personal ties to gather information than less-educated mothers do. Different processes of mobilizing information interact with economic constraints, causing less-educated mothers to minimize the risk of the cost of private education by choosing what their children are likely to excel at, which is often limited to one or two areas, while highly educated mothers use diverse methods to enable children to learn every subject in various ways and to excel in all of them. In the end, less-educated mothers evaluate their parenting as a risky approach but necessary given the conditions, whereas highly-educated mothers evaluate that their children will grow up to become self-motivated.
In sum, focusing on fundamental problems at the intersection of sociology and cultural studies in the issues of gender, social class, work, and family, my current and future projects are interwoven, forming a lineage of my scholarship. Much of my research uses an international comparative perspective, with my current research centering on Japan and Korea and future research including other Asian societies. Based on my past, current, and future research, I am prepared to pursue my intellectual trajectory of analyzing the lives of women.