South Korean women shunned at work as men fear #MeToo movement

Nicola Smith
A South Korean girl is among people supporting the MeToo movement during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Seoul - AP

South Korean women have reported instances of being shunned at work by male colleagues afraid of being caught up in the country’s growing #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.

According to the Chosun Ilbo, female office workers have been subjected to the so-called “Pence rule”, which describes the US vice president’s reported principle of never dining alone with a woman or attending an event where alcohol is served without his wife.

One 29 year-old professional at a Seoul-based company claimed she had missed out on an important networking opportunity when women were told they could not attend a drinks event with male colleagues and their boss.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, but I felt like I was being treated like I had,” she said.

The #MeToo campaign, which began against sexual abuse in Hollywood last year, has now taken South Korea by storm after a revelation in January by a public prosecutor about how her career had allegedly been sabotaged after being groped by a senior official.

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Her courage in coming forward inspired an outpouring of similar stories from South Korean women who had also suffered harassment in the country’s patriarchal society in silence.

The movement, which has swept through the world of entertainment, politics and religion, this week prompted the resignation of rising political star, Ahn Hee-jung, over accusations of rape.

Acclaimed director, Kim Ki-duk, who has been honoured at the Berlin, Cannes and Venice film festivals, has become the latest high profile figure to be accused of sexually predatory behaviour. He claims he has only had “consensual sexual relationships.”

But according to the conservative Chosun Ilbo, some women are now feeling a backlash in the male-dominated business world, where they are being deliberately excluded from office gatherings and business trips.

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It cited online communities filled with comments from men saying they were now nervous around female co-workers.

One anonymous office worker at a shipping company in Seoul said her boss “used to be very chatty with the female staff, but nowadays he only gives instructions by text message,” apparently telling other workers he was afraid of being misunderstood.

Another woman claimed she had been abruptly dropped from a business trip to China, despite doing all the preparation, and replaced by a male colleague instead.

“Since the #MeToo campaign started, my boss seems to be scared to go on business trips with female staff. This will reduce opportunities for me to achieve results at work,” she said.

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Reaction to these claims has been mixed, with the #MeToo campaign enjoying a groundswell of support and some pointing out that the Chosun Ilbo is not known for its liberal stance.

“I find it hard to believe. I’m sure some men avoid women because of MeToo but I doubt it is the norm,” said one sceptical commentator in Seoul on Thursday, during a long stream on the issue on the social media site, Reddit.

But another countered that it may be true. “I’ve read this article 30 minutes ago, just arrived to work, and we get a warning from our boss during our daily morning meeting to be careful of metoo movement,” she said.

“I also thought this article was a pile of bs, but some managers/companies are genuinely scared of it.”