‘Women’s Coworkers Are Women’, Now On My Way to Meet You
Living In South Korea as a Young Woman: Networking between Working Women
From Joining to Leaving a Company, Endless Juggling
In order to live in South Korea as a woman, one has to meet a number of conditions. It can be comparable to juggling(a circus technique in which one continuously tosses and catches two or more objects without dropping them). Generally, the conditions include a nice appearance that can leave good impressions, a cool willingness to split the bill on dates, and individual charms. One should not neglect any of those conditions or be exceptionally good at one of them. Furthermore, women who are not skinny are seen as too lazy to take care of themselves, no matter how smart they are. Women who are focused on their goals and achievements are considered too merciless or cold-blooded.
Surely, anyone can easily feel fatigue and stress going through this endless juggling act. The reason why I kept on with the juggling, even though I thought that it was not fair, was that I wanted to be good. In fact, there are a few people who are successful at fulfilling those conditions. They are considered cool. I wanted to be one of them. I believed that it would be possible if I put in enough efforts. It did not take a long time to realize that it was solely my misunderstanding.
Something felt wrong. In my friends’ companies, Korean male citizens’ mandatory military service was treated as work experience. Male employees earned more money for doing the same jobs as female employees and got promoted faster. My company was no different. Only because of the fact that I was a woman, they “needed to” send me home early during after-work gatherings. After I went home, they worked on the overall plan of a big project over the next round of drinks without me. Naturally, I was excluded from the project. There was a meeting which I should have been in charge of, but they sent another employee to handle. Because the client preferred to deal with pale, kind woman in their thirties.
When I was resigning, someone told me, “I knew that young women like you are less loyal to the company. This is why we need to hire men. Educated women never work out.” Looking back, I tried my best in my job, so stupidly. However, obviously my boss did not care.
When I was quitting my job, I said that I wanted to learn and work in a more flexible organization. And the reply was, “If you want to get married, it will be hard for you to get a job in that kind of company.” Probably they thought that I work in order to become a suitable wife who can bring money home. I had been telling them how passionate I was about my career, but they hadn’t been listening to me.
I expected appropriate acknowledgements and reward for the efforts that I put into my job. Too often, I was not considered a candidate for a bonus or vacation. Instead, the recipients were the newly-wed coworker or section head whose third child was born. I was always excluded and each time there were excuses. I believed that I was unfairly treated and this was an obvious betrayal. However good I was at the juggling, it was an unfair game that I could not win.
No One Understood My Discomfort
One time, my former team leader sent me a text message saying, “I am getting drunk and thinking of you.” He asked me where I was. He even asked me if my relationship with my boyfriend was still good. I remembered a time when I was working with him. I tend to tuck my hair behind my ears when I get little embarrassed. He commented that it is cute and asked if I can do it again.
I told my male coworker about that text message. I expected him to feel disgusted, just like how I felt, but he seemed to be confused or rather annoyed. He said “You might cause him trouble if you overreact and tell people about it.” Suddenly I became an overreacting, trouble-making person.
It wasn’t only this incident, no one ever understood the discomfort that I felt. Rather, the responses that I got were advice to get some sleep and think positively or questions about whether I’m on my period or not. One day, something suddenly hit me. Was I too sensitive? After these experiences, I automatically started to censor myself, questioning whether my discomfort was legitimate or not. Legitimate discomfort. Now that I look back, this did not make any sense.
I assume this is because I could not give up on the juggling all at once. A “mature” version of me emerged and started pressure me. Since then, it has never stopped bothering me. Whenever I have felt uncomfortable or annoyed, I told myself that I was not mature enough and I did not know the real world, reminding myself that I should endure the discomfort and learn more.
Unfortunately, I could not follow what my “mature”self preached. I became easily depressed. I felt sick. I faked being sick because I so badly did not want to go to work. I became timid and talked less. Other coworkers became close to each other by sharing their personal lives to a certain degree, but still I did not manage to join them or socialize with them. I was the youngest one among the coworkers. They wanted to hear interesting stories of my life as a twenty-something girl, but I could not say a word. Whenever I happened to hear anyone talking about me, I responded hysterically. Later, when I was alone, I scolded myself again.
I knew that others experience these linear processes, of “betrayal – self correction, breakdown – depression”, just like me. When I heard about the further injustice that the women I know have confronted, I expressed sympathetic anger and supported them. And I cursed as if such things would not happen to me. I even encouraged them to fight against it. Shamefully, it felt like telling them that made it so I could get through such incidents if they happened to me. That was my illogical way of comforting myself.
In fact, all I could do was listen to their complaints. The best thing to do was to pray. Pray such things do not happen to me. What was happening to me was already more than I could take. I was afraid of the consequences of becoming deeply involved with the others’ problems. I felt so sorry but I wanted to escape from their problems.
The Gangnam Murder Case, That Unforgettable Night
I still remember that night vividly. I received some text messages and missed calls. There had been a murder near Gangnam Station. A person was waiting for any woman to come into a public toilet, and when one did, he killed her. Media started to claim that this is was a “murder without motive” and that this was a spontaneous crime due to the mental illness of the suspect. However, it did not comfort me at all. If I was there, I would have been killed. I could not ignore it all this time. I took a few days off and joined the crowd at Gangnam Station. I do not know why, but I did not want to miss any single person’s emotion and facial expression at that place. I could read and hear about more women’s stories than ever.
The betrayal I had been feeling became more apparent. One of my bosses was so skeptical about how this could be interpreted as a misogynistic crime. He added the cynical comment that “she should not have been out late in the night. Such an unlucky girl.” The funny thing is, Shortly before that I had had to work until midnight and came back home at 1 a.m. I explained the situation several times and shared my sorrowful experiences as a woman. Then he replied, “‘Why do you have to be so serious and aggressive?’ I also met some angry people who told me not to overreact, not to divide people into different sides, and not to see men as potential criminals.
Once when I was near Gangnam Station, a guy was smoking on the street and I asked him not to. He threateningly said that I should be careful around Gangnam Station. I have heard that a random guy grabbed the wrist of my friend, a woman he didn’t know. He grabbed so hard that left red marks, and tried to pull her with him. She screamed out of horror, and he ran away, laughing. Listening to such stories, I felt anger rather than horror.
Sharing my experiences as a woman is nothing fun. One reason is that I easily get tired of asking so many questions to censor myself. The listeners always judge and keep trying to verify if what I am saying is true, which gives me another terrible headache. Women have told their stories on post-its and put them up on Gangnam Station Exit 10. I could imagine how much thought and consideration they went through before speaking up. They would have mistrusted and censored themselves continuously. I know that because I have done the same. And I did not want to do it to myself anymore. I contacted a few of my friends right away. We made a dedicated SNS account to archive the post-its.
Thanks to my acquaintance’s suggestion, we started up a talking session for sharing experiences as women. The main aim was to free ourselves from our respective incidents or memories. Not through SNS posts or short notes, but through expressing our thoughts in longer writings that we read to each other and sympathizing with each other. This would give the participants energy and courage. The participants were people we knew and invited who wrote about their experiences and shared their stories. I doubted whether this talking session could be successful since the participants were complete strangers to each other, but it went well.
The ten or so of us could still talk after nine hours of talking. I felt affection but also bitterness when a complete stranger’s experience sounded like mine. Although each person was raised in different environments, we feel the same pain only because of the only thing we have in common: we are all women. It gave me goosebumps.
Preparing a ‘Feminist Coworkers Gathering’
I became courageous after the talking session. I became brave enough to meet new people and listen to them and wished to start a new feminist project. First, I decided to meet people who are in the same situation as me. So I am preparing a ‘Feminist Industry Gathering.’
The networking in my career field is mainly male oriented. The process is done this way: the participants are mostly male employees in high positions in big companies. They give short briefings about recent trends using fancy English words, exchange name cards, and talk about their companies’ situations. Often, women are excluded from these events their very presence is considered unusual, since it seems like they are unnecessarily eager in their career. One time when I went to one of those networking gatherings, some people mentioned that the reason why I was there might be either my company sent me or I am wildly ambitious. Then they chuckled. If I had gotten upset about those comments, I know that they would have called me overreacting, hysterical woman.
The networking that I am planning and dreaming about is based on sharing thoughts and concerns as feminists. We will start with sharing recruiting information. The first criteria of my future job is whether its environment is women-friendly or not. Only an insider can answer this question. Later on, this can be expanded to regular gatherings or small societies. In addition, the members can help each other when one is starting a feminist project in his or her respective company.
The skills and abilities that I have gained during the struggle throughout my life were to win competitions. We are continuously competing with each other. We need better scores than classmates to go to universities and we need to be better than other applicants to get jobs. We have not learned how to accept ourselves as we are or how to coexist with our peers. Moreover, women have been taught that ‘women’s enemies are women.’ We are more accustomed to seeing each other as competitors. Consequently, there is betrayal, excessive self-consciousness, and depression. Now, I am trying to use my skills and abilities for better things. I am thinking about ways to meet and cooperate with female coworkers, and about non-aggressive communication techniques.
Maybe the Gangnam murder case stimulated something inside of me. I started to open myself up and communicate with others. I am still not completely free from my excessive self-consciousness or chronic depression. What is surprising is that listening to others helped me put an end to the vicious circle of depression and restlessness. That I gained the strength to meet and communicate with people around me was truly a valuable experience.
When I am working overtime in the office, I practically need to tie myself to sit down in front of the desk and work. I also have a lot of work to do to run the feminist gathering, but this time, I could not be more excited about working late. I will probably stay at my current company for now because I like what I am doing at the moment, but I am hoping to start more feminist projects and movements where my colleagues and I can meet and click with each other, and eventually where each of us can be truly free and happy.
Published: September 6, 2016
Translated by Ko Minji
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/7586
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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