This Isn’t “Kindness,” It’s Extra Work

[Living as a Young Woman in South Korea] Workplace Survival

Chan Ok | 기사입력 2023/11/05 [16:18]

This Isn’t “Kindness,” It’s Extra Work

[Living as a Young Woman in South Korea] Workplace Survival

Chan Ok | 입력 : 2023/11/05 [16:18]

I’d like to do things out of kindness, but since I’m the only one doing them...


It happened after I had been at my new office for just two months. I went to a workshop in Jeju Island. My company was in the cultural industry, and when a project started, we would have to move as one for a few months, and sometimes go to workshops with partner firms or artists. It would be three days and two nights in a place with clean air and water, bonding and discussing content and marketing ideas.


At this workshop, the participants were me (a female assistant manager in her late twenties and her fourth year at the company), a male manager in his late thirties, two female employees of our partner company, and two artists, one male and one female. All of us were good people. We respected each other’s space and didn’t say or do things that made the others uncomfortable. We could have spent an enjoyable three days and two nights together and returned to Seoul, but on the last day something happened that upset me.


▲ The braised seafood that we ate at our Jeju Island workshop. The dishes that you most want to avoid at office dinners, but which most often pop up, are stew and barbecued pork. Someone has to ladle out the stew and someone has to grill the pork. ⓒChan Ok

The place we were staying was a guesthouse that had a small building that we had all to ourselves. During the workshop, we ate breakfast in the main building and then went out for lunch and dinner. But on the last day, we decided to buy food to cook in our little building. The guesthouse owner and two of his friends joined us.  We bought raw fish and other seafood. We grilled the shrimp and made a spicy stew. We drank soju, beer, water, and soda. Some of us had coffee, and snack foods and fruit were brought out. After drinking for a while, we even made ramen.


Before you start to wonder if this article should be titled “Jeju Meokbang,” I have one more thing to add. At our little party that night, we used mostly non-disposable tableware that belonged to the guesthouse. That’s why, when the party was over, we had closer relationships, an experience of frank conversation – and dirty dishes from nine people who had had stew, rice, three types of drinks, desserts, and ramen.


Who did all those dishes?


The next morning, I thought of the dishes as soon as I opened my eyes. I went to the kitchen. One of the women from our partner company had just started washing them. I went to work on the trash that had been left on the table. Soon, the female artists came in. She went straight to the sink to help out. The male manager on our team came in the kitchen. He looked around for a moment and then left. The other woman from our partner company, an assistant manager, came in. She picked up a dishcloth and started wiping the table and throwing away trash.


I decided to find out what our male manager that had stepped in the kitchen and then left, and the male artist, who had not even come to the kitchen, were doing. They were sitting on the living room sofa using their notebooks to search the Internet or do other personal things. I watched them for a moment and then went back to the kitchen to help the other three women finish cleaning up.


I thought about talking to the women about this situation, but a wave of anxiety that I was only one who was upset about it made me decide not to. I went back and forth about whether it wasn’t too trivial of a matter to bring up, and in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.


My feelings at that time may be best explained with the following example. When everyone is working late, your coworker leaves the office. If this person didn’t have anything to do, it wouldn’t be a problem - but in this case, the person’s leaving causes the rest of you to have more work. But everyone but you appears not to be upset about this. Do you stand up and say something, or do you let it go?


There is something that must be checked before you answer this question. It is whether washing dishes can be compared to overtime work. Overtime work is work. Is doing the dishes at a retreat also work? I think that it definitely is, but it’s clear that, on that day, it was instead being treated as a form of kindness. If it had been official “work” then everyone would have had to participate.


▲ [A list of the rules I have to follow for eating since] I developed reflux esophagitis because of stress and overwork. Should I have to do care work at the office as well? ⓒChan Ok

Labor that’s called “kindness,” not “duty”


With work duties, responsibilities are comparatively clear-cut. This is because the fundamental standard for an employee is whether or not they can carry them out properly. An employee who can carry them out without making mistakes is considered competent, and one who cannot is considered incompetent. But when a duty is connected with care work, “responsibility” gets replaced by the word “kindness.”


I’ve seen several female office workers who have become used to doing care work. Many people benefit from their labor, but what they get in return is not the label “competent.” When they invest their labor in contributing to the team (for example, by cutting up and serving a cake that a guest has brought), they are sure to be told they are “like a mom,” not competent workers.


In comparison, male workers often are only on the receiving end of this “kindness.” Do they know that it is nothing less than additional labor for women? I think they do. I feel particularly suspicious every time I see men casually exempt himself from care work. The most common way they do this is by claiming they’re unaccustomed to care work. Among all work duties, care work is pretty much the only one where someone could so blithely declare, “I’m not good at that kind of thing.”


The reason that this is possible is that men face no consequences for not doing care work. So then what about a female employee who refuses to do care work with the same attitude? She is criticized. She “lacks social sense.” Cutting a cake has no relation to work duties, but because of it, one person is devalued as lacking social sense, while another maintains his position as an average employee.


In my case, I’d rather hear that I lack social sense or will never get married more than that I’m like a mom. I should tell you, I’m generally tactful in the office. I am told that I’m forthright but still good at matching the office mood. Our partner companies don’t think that I’m soft-hearted or prickly. In short, I have an image as an office worker who’s quite good at maintaining relationships. But still, if I don’t engage in “kindness,” the chance that I won’t be called graceless or arrogant is close to 0%.  It’s hard to believe that my not helping with the dishes and a male manager not helping with the dishes would be judged on the same curve.


At the same time, because the dishes incident happened in the hierarchical organization we call a company, one could wonder if it wasn’t a problem of rank, not gender. It’s true that of the two artists, who occupied the highest level of authority in the workshop, only the woman did the dishes, but I’m going to explore the possibility that I won’t do the dishes if I’m promoted.


Marriage, children... the barriers to be overcome if we want to not have to do dishes


Gender discrimination in the cultural industry is thought to be a little weaker than in other industries. I can see that, since the people in my industry are young and informal and make progressive content, people around me assume that they’ll understand this kind of thing. In reality, too, I think you could say that it’s comparatively better than in other industries, but even if so, it’s not because we are young and informal, but simply because it’s an overwhelmingly female group.


The funny thing is that even in this overwhelmingly female industry, there is a clear gender division according to rank. The company’s head, the team leaders who have major decision-making authority, project leaders – they’re mostly men. The reason is simple. Male senior workers hold fast to their positions, but female senior workers always disappear at some point.


As you can guess, the main reasons that female senior workers disappear are marriage and children. In my industry, working long hours for low pay is taken for granted. Even if you work without pausing during working hours, you still have to work overtime. You work when others work and also work when they play, and you are stuck doing weekend events. That a high proportion of female senior workers remain unmarried into their 40s is partly because many of them want to live independent and unconventional lives, but also because many who marry and have children leave the industry, so that only women who have never been married remain.


Married women are a danger to their teams, because you never know when they’re going to get pregnant. I heard about the resentment that resulted when an assistant manager with seven years of experience ended up leaving her work to a college intern. Most of that resentment was directed at the company, but when the members of a team, who don’t have the courage to complain to the president, face a situation in which they have to recruit a new employee, who would they prefer? I doubt their top choice would be a married woman who might have a second child at any moment.


After women have put their careers on hold for their families, there are two ways they return to our industry. They become freelancers or they start their own businesses (usually agencies). Whatever the case, they don’t return to the company they were at before. In contrast, I’ve never seen a male worker quit because of marriage, pregnancy, or childcare. Senior male workers get married, work, stay in the industry for a long time, get promoted, and start their own businesses. And they tease women who remain unmarried as they get older.


▲ Many women in the workplace are on impossible missions in which they can do neither this nor that.

Appearance maintenance – don’t do it and lose a promotion, do it and attract rumors?


Women who have moved up the ranks without the blank space of marriage, pregnancy, or childcare in their resumes are often the targets of teasing and rumors from all sides. Society sees women who remain unmarried as they age as “overbearing” or “failures.” The opinion that they become the latter because they are the former is also common. (Men may be suspected of being gay, but women are rarely suspected of being lesbians.) There is no reason why strong-willed women who have given up on parts of their private lives like marriage or dating would be bad at their work. But even though they should be respected at least in the workplace, rumors are frequently spread about them and they have to endure being treated like losers instead.


The following happened at my first workplace. A team leader in another department on my floor was an unmarried woman in her forties.  She had reached the team leader position two years later than the men her age in the company. She not only was a loyal worker who always worked overtime and did what the boss said, she even regularly brought in good results, but she was strangely behind in promotions. At some point, a male coworker told me what was whispered about her around the office. According to people, especially older male workers, the reason that she kept being put off for promotions was that she “didn’t take care of herself” – that is, she didn’t put enough effort into her appearance. He said they also say that she works so hard because she couldn’t find a husband.


I told my younger coworker not to go along with that kind of talk, but privately I thought that the part about her not being promoted because of her appearance might be true. Because our top boss was that kind of person. It was a publicly known that he had said that a woman’s top virtue is beauty. There was even a rumor that he was more likely to hire women with long hair. In order to gain favor with this man, one female assistant manager had done body rolls at an office party, and a few female managers would act cutesy. No one demanded they do these things, but they said that this was what women had to do to survive.


Is perfection an achievable goal?


Of course, there was another female team leader who provided a contrast to that one. She was pretty, thin, and always perfectly dolled up. Her clothes were neatly ironed and she put effort into her makeup. So she was a person who put in the “self-management” effort asked of women, but she was very selfish as a worker. She was the type who didn’t even pay attention to people who couldn’t be useful to her, who you didn’t like as a person even when she did her work well.


According to her reputation, the worst part about her is that she was rude to people below her and overly polite to those above her. In other words, she only acted cute towards the boss, and at office dinners among male assistant managers and regular employees, they would even wonder if she was having an affair with him. She was skilled at her work, but because she put effort into her appearance, and more than anything, because she didn’t act cutesy for junior male coworkers, she was quickly suspected of using her body to get ahead. Really, she was just a normal bad boss who sucked up to her own boss and pushed around her subordinates. The person who told me the rumors about her was a woman who soon quit that workplace.


▲ The building where TV drama [Misaeng] was filmed. If main character Jang Geu-rae had been female, many of the episodes would have been different. ⓒChan Ok


I’m not sure how these senior female workers think of their work lives that allows them to endure this. They may have learned early in their long careers how to deal with those kinds of rumors. In my case, as well, sexual harassment and gender discrimination haven’t been the most difficult parts of work life. The important things are work performance and your relationship with your coworkers, and so these cause the most stress. This is also because I’ve thought of myself as always ready to speak up against workplace sexual harassment. I comforted myself by thinking it would be fine because at the crucial moment when it seemed like something wasn’t right, I would be able to protest and fight back. But looking back, I’m not sure I really have been ready to speak up at any time.


In reality, I have been gripped by the pressure of knowing that in order to protest against any injustices that I might face, I have to do my work perfectly and have good relationships with my coworkers. I thought that that was the only way that people would support me, and that I would be able to speak up confidently.


I need an experience making my side


Let’s go back to the dishes. There were no less than four women, so why didn’t anyone express doubts about, let alone protest or criticize, the two men who weren’t helping? Maybe it was because none of us could be sure that the others would be on her side. I, for one, didn’t trust them. I know from experience that just because someone is a woman, it doesn’t mean that she will unconditionally agree with me about gender discrimination.


One time, a female colleague saw that I had merely given a joking reply to a possibly-discriminatory comment from my direct supervisor and asked me if I didn’t have romantic feelings for him. Her question contained a hint of jealousy that I had “laughed off” the comment. In her view, it had been serious discrimination, and she decided that I had put up with it because of sexual attraction. I told her that was ridiculous. And I was shocked to find out that women around me didn’t think that I handled myself well, but the opposite. That episode stayed in my mind for a long time. But I also think that she wanted to protect herself from suspicion of being a bystander to the incident, by simply claiming that friendliness between women and men necessarily involves sexual feelings.


Now, after having gone through that kind of process to become an assistant manager and being close to becoming a manager, I’m used to a lifestyle of not speaking. As I write this, I wonder if all of the injustices I let go, all of the “trivial” discrimination and harassment that I ignored haven’t had a bad influence on my coworkers and junior coworkers. Have I caused male coworkers to feel confident that “it’s okay to do that,” and female coworkers to feel isolation as they wonder, “Am I just being sensitive?” Just like how I used to resent the female managers who would avoid the boss that would “naturally” take only male workers outside for a cigarette after eating and instead hide in the shadows smoking by themselves.


I’m going to stay in the working world for many more years. There is much less sexual harassment and gender discrimination than in the past, and I expect that it will continue to gradually decrease. I’m thinking about my role as a coworker, senior worker, and junior worker in this process. I’m going to frequently say that I “don’t know how” to do care work that I’m not good at and that there is no reason for me to do. I’m going to clearly say, “That’s sexual harassment” to those who use the pretense of sexual liberation to engage in sexual harassment. I won’t put up with bad bosses, bad coworkers, or bad junior coworkers just because they’re women, but I will at least try to criticize them for the right reasons. These decisions are not made with only a focus on changing myself. I also need to send a signal in order to know who sympathizes with me or doesn’t.


Honestly, my future in the working world isn’t very bright. I don’t have any great ambition or goals for the work itself, and there’s no particular position I want to reach. But the workplace is where I spend the most time, where I get the money to support my life, and where I get the title that people begin their introductions of me with – and these facts aren’t going to change for a while. What I mean is, my workplace is not everything, but if it’s uncomfortable, about half of my life is uncomfortable. That’s why I need people there who are on my side.


And the most certain way to make “my side” is to express my position clearly. This doesn’t have to always be done by publicly, by loudly protesting in front of everyone. I hope that I continually attempt to make my side as best I can, even if it’s just by talking behind people’s backs. This is my promise to myself.


Published: August 9, 2016

Translated by Marilyn Hook

Original article:


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