South Korea’s legal profession lags on gender equality, IBA report finds

Just 29% of all lawyers in South Korea are female, with women making up only 13% of senior positions at law firms

IBA president Almudena Arpón de Mendívil Aldama Image courtesy of the International Bar Association

Women make up less than a third of South Korean lawyers, putting it behind countries including Chile, Spain and Nigeria, according to a new report from the International Bar Association in collaboration with the Korean Bar Association (KBA).

The report – Republic of Korea Results Report – is part of the IBA’s ambitious ‘50:50 by 2030’ project aimed at addressing gender imbalances in the legal field globally by 2030. The report found that just 29% of the 28,118 practising lawyers in the country are women, with even fewer holding senior positions.

The report draws a stark comparison with other nations, noting that female representation in the legal profession in South Korea trails behind countries like the Netherlands (57%), Chile (56%), Spain (54%), England and Wales (51%) and Nigeria (40%).

Underrepresentation is pervasive across various sectors within South Korea’s legal profession. For instance, women constitute only 25% of the workforce in law firms and only 13% reach senior positions.

Similarly, while women represent 28% of all in-house lawyers, this figure drops to 12% at senior levels. In the public sector, 35% of lawyers are women, with 29% in high-level roles; the judiciary is comprised of 35% women, with 27% holding senior roles.

Young Hoon Kim, president of the KBA, expressed the association’s commitment to addressing these disparities. “The KBA has been honoured to assist in this important study, gathering data from across our profession to further gender parity in the law,” Kim said.

He further emphasised the need to “challenge widespread cultural norms and champion lasting change” in the face of such stark inequality.

IBA legal projects director Sara Carnegie praised the KBA for taking the lead on this report and providing an in-depth analysis of the data collected, said Carnegie. She highlighted the project’s aim to enhance impact and provide insights into jurisdictions worldwide through collaboration with IBA member bars.

In response to these findings, the Korean Bar Association has taken proactive steps, including establishing its Gender Equality Centre, which focuses on conducting research and offering training on gender equality within the legal profession.

Furthermore, between 2017 and 2022, the Korean government implemented a five-year plan to boost the number of practising female lawyers, particularly within the public sector where women now make up 35% of lawyers, higher than the average in other sectors.

In a foreword to the report, Sung Hee Kwon, general manager of the Centre, said: “The public sector has benefitted from the Korean government’s policy to improve female representation. The statistics from law firms and in-house counsel show a much gloomier picture, with lower female representation in the legal profession and fewer women holding senior positions.

“All the figures urge the country to do more. According to the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum in 2022, the Republic of Korea remains almost at the bottom.”

The report also illuminates workplace practices that could help mitigate these disparities. It reveals that only 44% of law firms actively monitor gender balance, compared to 60% of companies, nearly all public sector bodies and the judiciary. Popular initiatives to address the gap include the introduction of flexible working arrangements and gender-sensitive education and training, which are vital steps towards fostering a more inclusive environment.

The latest report comes a month after the IBA won the Gender Equality Initiative of the Year Award at the Women and Diversity in Law Awards in London, which the Global Legal Post organises.

The 50:50 Project was conceived by IBA president Almudena Arpón de Mendívil Aldama and launched in 2021. As Arpón de Mendívil said at its inception: “The IBA aspires to build global empirical evidence on the barriers causing the disparity in figures between women and men in senior roles and to put forward remedies to rectify the situation in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality.”

Carnegie acknowledged being delighted to receive the award, saying: “To everyone involved, I extend heartfelt thanks for all the contributions, without which this award would not have been possible.”

She added: “Learning from each other is key to success – what works and why? Looking at both the data and understanding lived experience in the next phase of our long-term project will be key to raising awareness further, sharing best practices and attaining greater balance within the legal profession.”

Beatriz Martinez, IBA project lawyer leading the work on the 50:50 project and collecting the award, said: “Without the combined efforts of bar associations, law societies and legal workplaces, this project would not have gone as far as it has. This unique initiative is only as impactful as the commitment to gender equality from the whole legal profession.”

She added: “It was amazing to achieve this award and to be at the ceremony to collect it, too.” The Women and Diversity in Law Awards will return in 2025.

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