• Dr Anne Hilty is a scholar-practitioner of health psychology from New York, living in Europe and East Asia since 2005. She has been in clinical practice since 1989 and engages in a variety of research projects for social welfare and cultural preservation. Additionally, she is a well-published writer.

  • ArirangTV video clip

    Profile of Dr. Hilty by Arirang TV, on Youtube (June 2012): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RHfOy0fHo4
  • Headline Jeju article

    Profile of Dr. Hilty on Headline Jeju newspaper (January 2011; Korean only): http://www.headlinejeju.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=107569

‘Better to be Born a Cow than a Woman’: Kim Mandeok and Gender Equality

[The following was presented by Dr. Hilty on June 2nd, 2012, at the 7th annual Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity.]

“Better to be Born a Cow than a Woman”

— Kim Mandeok and Gender Equality

 

Anne Hilty, PhD

Cultural Health Psychologist

Social Science Researcher

Ieodosana Organization

Jeju Island, Korea

Abstract.

The historical figure of Kim Mandeok [Jeju Island, Korea] provides a model for today’s women, with timeless and universal themes such as women’s empowerment, gender equality, and social responsibility in the form of compassionate yet pragmatic philanthropy, for a more equitable distribution of wealth and global poverty reduction. The author begins by discussing the historical and cultural context as well as major themes in the life of Kim Mandeok to establish her universal applicability. Of primary focus is the ongoing cross-cultural need for gender equality, not only as a matter of social justice but also a means of strengthening the workforce, thereby achieving a reduction in poverty. The necessity of consciousness-raising and self-actualization of women as a precursor to same is explored, and the present status of women in the Asian region highlighted. Finally, “Kim Mandeoks” of today are identified — women who are practicing her ideals and assuming positions of socially responsible leadership both locally and across the globe.

Kim Mandeok was a woman ahead of her time. Often referred to as “the first female ‘CEO’ of Korea,” she embodied Jeju’s mythological goddess Gamunjang-Aegi in her self-determined fortune; further, in dispersing her wealth when the people of this island were in severe need, she demonstrated compassion in the form of philanthropy combined with pragmatism.

While it is important to understand her life within its historical and cultural context and can be difficult to separate legend from reality with limited historical record, her self-actualization as a precursor to her selfless charity provide themes both universal and timeless. A global analysis of gender inequality, with a particular focus on Asia, reveals a need for the further empowerment of women, while inequitable distribution of wealth has recently sparked revolutions and demonstrations in many parts of the world.

Applying the message of Kim Mandeok’s life to the present context, we benefit in areas of gender equality and women’s empowerment, particularly that of rural women, as a means to more equitable asset distribution for the purpose of global poverty reduction. In so doing, we can identify “Mandeoks” of today, all across the globe.

Historical and Cultural Context

In order to understand the relevance of Kim Mandeok’s 18th-century Jeju Island life to the 21st-century world, we must first place her within historical and cultural context, for objectivity and in order to discover universal themes.

Kim Mandeok (1739-1812), hereinafter referred according to local custom simply as “Mandeok,” lived during Korea’s Joseon Era, one of the world’s most long-lasting dynasties which revitalized and relied strongly on Neo-Confucian methods of social governance that linger in Korea even today. While this system was strongly predicated on gender roles which were quite repressive for women, it is significant to note that on Jeju Island, the home of Mandeok, Confucian ideals were introduced much later than on the mainland and in many ways rejected, never achieving the same stronghold. The local culture of the island, with a goddess-oriented, shamanistic indigenous religion at its foundation and a traditionally egalitarian, matrifocal culture based on agrarian and marine cultivation practices, had long provided women with greater economic and social independence than their mainland counterparts. Nevertheless, or perhaps in part because of the laborious nature of their lives, a local proverb gave voice to the lament, “Better to be born a cow than a woman” on Jeju.

A culmination of events in Mandeok’s life created for her a unique opportunity relevant to our discussion today. First, she was the middle and only female of three children, offspring of an aristocratic [“yangban”] father in political exile from the mainland according to the custom of that time, and a local commoner [“cheonmin”] mother. According to the laws of the Joseon class system, the children of an “inter-class” union were considered members of the lower of the two parental classes; thus, Mandeok and her siblings would have been “cheonmin”.

Orphaned at age 12 by the successive deaths of each parent, Mandeok was given for fostering to a retired social entertainer, or “gisaeng,” the owner of a “gisaeng house” who provided her with the  profession’s typically extensive education in the arts, medicine and handicraft. Jeju gisaeng in particular were also known for their equestrian skills.

Since the year 1650, gisaeng were considered the property of the government, and classed similarly to the slaves in Korea even though they were also among the most highly educated women; it was said that they “possessed the body of a commoner but the mind of an aristocrat.” The class system was not abolished until 1895, at which time gisaeng and other slaves were given their freedom.

Gisaeng houses were typically in the center of town and near the marketplace which, coupled with her apprenticeship to the gisaeng owner, would have provided Mandeok with a marked sense of business. Gisaeng were also known to have unparalleled access to government officials and knowledge of local affairs, often viewed as a key source of political or court intelligence and sometimes, though unofficially, even wielding political clout. Some were also able to attain considerable wealth.

It is said that at age 22, Mandeok successfully petitioned to have her name removed from the gisaeng registry and restored to aristocracy. The royal record of 1796, however, in mentioning Mandeok’s act of charity to her people and the king’s acknowledgement of same, identifies her as “gisaeng”. It must also be considered that, according to the laws of that time, the offspring of a yangban father and cheonmin mother would have been classified as cheonmin, or commoners, not as yangban, or aristocrats. Women typically became gisaeng by age 15, the age of majority in Korea at the time, following at least 3 years of training; the custom was in fact to retire from gisaeng entertainment work by the age of 22, or at the latest by age 30, after which most continued in the medical or needlework aspects of their profession. In order for a woman to have her name removed from the gisaeng registry, she essentially had to “buy” her freedom with a large monetary contribution to government officials, typically done indirectly through a male patron and after which many gravitated to tavern work or inn-keeping.

Mandeok soon owned an inn for merchants and a commission agency for port trade, among the earliest to do so. By utilizing her extensive government network and powerful connections, taking advantage of varying tax laws, and gaining a monopoly on imported rice and salt exchanged for Jeju seaweed and abalone, she amassed great wealth and by the age of 50 was considered one of the two wealthiest women in Korea. It is of note that great social and economic changes were taking place at this time, particularly in areas of commerce and industry, and there was a marked increase of women in business and trade, including merchants. Jeju became a center of the fishing and maritime industries, complete with port trade and commission agencies. It is also of note, however, that in the Joseon class structure, merchant or trade work was considered lowly, fit for commoners and fallen nobility. Mandeok never married, due to her former gisaeng status, but eventually fostered an orphaned boy, a custom not  uncommon on Jeju at that time.

In the 1794 famine brought about by extreme weather and social factors, ultimately 1/3 of the Jeju population was decimated. Due to local government complications including corruption, food relief was not reaching the people; ultimately, Mandeok took a pragmatic approach and used most of her wealth for the importation and distribution of food, primarily rice, to Jeju people. It is important to note that Jeju is a “society” culture as locals have termed it, and “samchun” [lit., “uncle”] or collective economic societies based on mutual aid have long been the norm. Within this context, while surely hers was an act of great compassion and charity, Mandeok would have been compelled to give what she had to those in need.

When offered reward, Mandeok stated her desire to leave the island in order to visit the king’s palace and make a pilgrimage to the 12,000 peaks of Geumgang Mountain in the mainland, considered a sacred site. In consideration of what was ultimately a 200-year legal ban against Jeju women leaving the island, this seemingly humble request was actually quite powerful: Mandeok was asking for something that only the king could grant, and which distinguished her from all other female residents of Jeju Island at that time. Her request affirmed, the king also ordered people along her route to greet her and provide food, thus creating a “cult of Mandeok” well beyond the grateful people of Jeju. Poems and other works of art and scholarship were created in her honor, a custom remaining to this day.

Quite an accomplished life, considering her humble beginnings, yet particularly in Joseon-era Korea this could only have happened within the context of her extraordinary constellation of circumstances.

Following her visit to the mainland, the court’s chief-of-staff, Chae Jegong, wrote a biography of her entitled, “Mandeok-jeon.” His rendition of her life story is one of very few documentations of same, and includes these words:

“Mandeok is a highly commendable woman from Jeju: at sixty she has the face of a woman of forty. She paid 1000 bars of gold to purchase enough rice for all the people to eat. Because of this, she crossed the sea and saw the palace for the first time. All she wanted was to see Mount Geumgang just once….”

In the Annals of King Jeong Jo [the “20th year of his reign,” or 1796], an official court record, there is one notation about her:

“The Jeju governor reported that Jeju gisaeng Mandeok used her wealth to save the hungry people from starvation. When she was offered a reward, she refused and instead asked to cross the sea to the mainland and visit Mount Geumgang. His Majesty approved of Mandeok’s request and ordered villagers along Mandeok’s path to provide her food for the journey.”

It is deemed highly unusual for a royal record to include the accomplishment of a woman, particularly a former gisaeng from Jeju Island — thus, triply marginalized.

 

Themes

Beyond these two documents and the poems and artwork in her honor, there is little documentation regarding Kim Mandeok’s life, and separating fact from legend and hyperbole can be difficult. Nevertheless, her story is timeless and universal in its themes, and strongly relates to the issues today of gender equality and global poverty eradication.

Such themes include: (1) abandonment by family and benevolent rescuing of same; (2) independent, self-directed, self-made hero; (3) community aid and responsibility; (4) redemption [from impoverished orphan and lowly gisaeng / slave to wealthy patron with social recognition and the ultimate acknowledgment of royalty]; (5) compassionate pragmatism; (6) success as defined by charity, philanthropy, and humanitarian aid; (7) women’s empowerment despite all odds; and, (8) the valuing of such character traits as diligence, stamina, strength of will, perseverance, and the overcoming of hardship.

We can surely extract from the story of Kim Mandeok and pursue the very worthwhile ideals of charity, philanthropy, and general humanitarian values including social welfare. One such effort is the recent and very laudable openings of both elementary and middle schools in Vietnam, supported by this Foundation and bearing Mandeok’s name. However, it is the theme of gender equality and the self-actualization and empowerment of women, particularly in economic terms as well as leadership, that arguably has the most wide-reaching and long-lasting effects, in particular on the eradication of global poverty.

Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment

In recent demographic shifts of global business, several trends can be identified. Among these is an aging workforce, especially in Europe and Northeast Asia. As a result, companies are more likely to hire women, and in turn, women are entering the workforce in ever-increasing numbers. They are still generally undervalued, however, both as a resource and in terms of compensation and advancement. In those societies with traditional gender roles, such as we can see in Northeast Asia, this is especially true — often coupled with swiftly developing economies yet a rapidly aging workforce, in which case, the need for hiring women is paradoxically the greatest.

“The best stimulus for the economy is to invest in women entrepreneurs” [Lars H. Thunell, CEO of International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of World Bank, at a 2012 International Women’s Day event]. As Irene Natividad, president of the Global Summit of Women, recently reported, the percentage of female entrepreneurs is rapidly growing around the world: 40% of all privately held companies in the US are owned by women, as are 30% across Europe, 40% in China, and 25% in Japan, while across the globe women are the majority in micro-entrepreneurship. Multiple UN studies, according to Natividad, have shown that increased earning among women leads to the increased health and education of their families, and that women’s improved economic status is the key to sustainable development and global economic recovery. She exhorts governments and business leaders to understand the advancement of women not as a social welfare issue but a sound economic imperative, and to place gender diversity and equality at the top of their agendas for strategic market growth.

The eight UN Millennium Development Goals [MDG] as outlined in the summit meeting of 2010 include gender equality, an end to poverty and hunger, and the making of a global partnership for development, among others. According to the latest MDG report on gender equality, men are still universally paid more than women for similar work, while women are not only paid less but with less financial and social security as well, and often in “vulnerable” forms of employment. Only one-fourth of senior officials or managers are women, and in West Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, this is reduced to less than 10%. Women are slowly gaining in political power, but largely due to quota systems and other special measures; as of the late 2010 report, only 9 out of 151 heads of state and 11 out of 192 heads of government were female, and women held only 16% of ministerial posts globally.

UNDP, in its latest Human Development Report released in 2010, cited Asia’s development as one of “swift progress in regard to human well-being,” especially in China, Indonesia, South Korea, Laos, and Nepal. However, in its new Gender Inequality Index, South Asia in particular shows an average loss of 74%, with women lagging behind men in all aspects: economic, legal, and political. The UNDP’s 2010 publication, “Power, Voices and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific,” cites gender equality as a matter of human development “not only for women but for whole societies….”

The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, more widely known as “UN Women,” maintains the economic empowerment of as well as the leadership and participation by women as two of its primary foci. The 56th annual Commission on the Status of Women [CSW], held earlier this year, highlighted three goals: rural women’s empowerment, poverty and hunger reduction, and rural development — all very much in keeping with the themes of Kim Mandeok’s life. Among the seven resolutions determined as an outcome of the 56th CSW is “Indigenous Women: Key Actors in Poverty and Hunger Eradication” which, among many other issues, addresses the multiple forms of discrimination and poverty experienced by indigenous or native women, and “the extreme disadvantages that indigenous peoples, in particular indigenous women, have typically faced across a range of social and economic indicators and the impediments to their full enjoyment of their rights….”

The World Economic Forum of Geneva, with its renowned annual meeting in Davos — of which this Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity strives to be the Asia-Pacific equivalent, released its latest Global Gender Gap Report in 2011. The report includes 4 foci, what the WEF terms its “Four Pillars” of gender equality: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The 2011 report includes 135 countries, and the overall ranking places China at 61st, while Japan is at 98th and Korea lags behind in 107th position. On a positive note, China has maintained its ranking from the previous year, while Korea has moved up from 117th place and Japan from 100th, indicating slight growth toward closing the gender gap. In general, the Asia-Pacific region is at just over 60% in terms of gender equality issues, ranked above the Middle East and Africa but below all other regions.

Asia-Pacific

 

In April of this year, the Asia Society of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore released its annual report on women’s leadership in Asia, the results of which have been widely reported in the global media. The survey measures women’s status in health, education, economic activity, and political leadership, and indicates the gender gap at its narrowest and women’s leadership the strongest in New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia, while those most unequal in both economics and leadership include Pakistan, Nepal, India, South Korea, and Cambodia. Overall, the study finds that limits on women’s employment across Asia amount to a regional loss of $89 billion [USD] annually in productivity and human resources.

Key findings include:

ñ      Asia’s increased prosperity has narrowed the gender gap in many countries, and there are indicators of women’s increased political involvement; Asian women are included in the world’s wealthiest and most powerful; cultural and social misperceptions regarding the inferiority of women are changing;

ñ      There is significant variation among Asian nations regarding issues of gender equality;

ñ      Increased development typically leads to an increase in female leadership; however, two notable exceptions are Japan and South Korea, which have the highest human development rankings in Asia but are notoriously low in measures of gender equality, also true to a lesser degree in both Singapore and Hongkong;

ñ      There is a significant “leaking pipeline” phenomenon throughout the region, in which women in mid-level management positions opt out of employment rather than seek senior management (Japan, 70.24%; China, 52.88%; Hong Kong, 48.83%; Singapore, 45.90%);

ñ      Culture and long-held social norms are the primary barriers to women’s leadership.

Citing the 2+ billion female population in Asia, the report indicates the pay gap is most significant in South Korea (51%) and Japan (60%), and narrowest in Malaysia and Singapore (81%) as well as in Mongolia and Thailand (79%), while the global average is at 70-80% in women’s wages compared to that of men. Even greater is the disparity in senior corporate and board of directors positions; in the former, Japan is the lowest with only 5% of senior management positions held by women; Thailand and the Philippines are the highest at 39%, while China has 25% and India 14%. In terms of women on directorial boards, Japan is again the lowest with just 0.9%, South Korea at 1.9%, China at 8.5%, and New Zealand — the highest in the Asia-Pacific region — at only 9.3%, while the global average is 21%.

“To continue in this direction would put in peril Asia’s many achievements,” the report concludes, urging improvements in gender equality to ensure regional economic development.

The Asia Society report also addresses cultural and social norms as “the most intractable barrier” to gender equality. The top three challenges cited include (1) the demands of family life and view of women as the primary or even exclusive caregiver in the home, extending not only to husband and children but also elder parents; (2) policies and practices of organizations which favor men over women; and, (3) cultural barriers, including a devaluation of girls and women as inferior and subordinate with clearly defined and limited social roles. The Social Institutions and Gender Index [SIGI], developed and utilized by OECD to compensate for research bias on the basis of culture, measures 102 non-OECD countries for those cultural aspects which lead to gender inequality, and has identified family code, son preference, physical integrity or safety, ownership rights, and civil liberties as its criteria. South Asia measures highest in terms of discrimination against women, while the results for East Asia and the Pacific region are mixed.

Recommendations

 

There are many recommendations and paths for improved gender equality. The Asia Society report suggests increased mentoring of women in business, as well as improvements in parental leave, childcare, elder care, and gender-equal retirement packages. Even more important, however, according to this source, is the need for improved access to education for girls and women, the eradication of sex-selection procedures, and an improvement in women’s property and other legal rights.

In terms of cultural and social barriers, broad education and media campaigns are critical, as well as affirmative action policies, laws to prevent discrimination and domestic violence, and access to legal and support services. The report outlines the pathway to women’s leadership with a foundation of survival, health and education, followed by economic participation and opportunity, and ultimately, political empowerment. China, the country in which former leader Mao Zedong famously said, “Women hold up half the sky,” as a reference to egalitarian economic policy development, has 49% female representation in its total population and 46% in the labor force, and a higher percentage of women in top management than many western nations. There are 29 million female entrepreneurs in China, and half of the 14 female billionaires identified by Forbes’ “World’s Richest Self-Made Women” (2011) are from China. The path to equality in China seems to be one of graduating from a top university, working for a time in a large state-owned business, and then launching one’s own business and becoming an entrepreneur.

 

The World Economic Forum recommends policy frameworks for gender equality that include family leave, childcare assistance, taxation systems, and labor practices. UN Women, in outlining its resolution for indigenous women’s empowerment, cites a number of methods for developing policies and procedures which will better ensure their rights, and emphasizes the need for their full consent and participation in such activities as well as respect for cultural diversity and acknowledgment of their traditional wisdom. UNDP suggests an “agenda for action” to support economic, political and legal empowerment of women: (1) strengthen international commitments; (2) develop gender-sensitive economic policy; (3) provide greater education access for girls and women; (4) increase political participation; (5) develop gender-equitable laws; (6) eliminate legal forms of discrimination; (7) improve data collection and analysis; and, (8) contribute to change in public perception.

Several policy recommendations are outlined in the Asia Society report. There is a call for governments in Asia to act more systematically to ensure gender equality, such as gender-responsive budgeting and affirmative action policies; Japan and South Korea in particular are exhorted to improve women’s participation in employment and leadership. Institutions both public and private are encouraged to support women in making the bridge between mid- and top-level management positions. While women’s participation in agriculture is generally high, their productivity and scale is low, and rural women’s empowerment is the key. Pioneering female leaders are encouraged to “pay it forward” in contributing to the empowerment of other women. Finally, a need for public education campaigns to reduce cultural and social barriers is highlighted.

Women’s Empowerment Principles

Women’s Empowerment Principles [WEP] were co-created by two United Nations organizations: UN Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM; and, UN Global Compact.

UN Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses around the world which base their economic principles on universally accepted standards of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption. UNIFEM is now a part of UN Women. The WEP were launched in March of 2010 on International Women’s Day, for the purpose of achieving economic equality for women across the globe. They are based on an earlier version known as the Calvert Women’s Principles, developed in 2004.

Many women’s organizations around the world have adopted these principles. One such example is Business and Professional Women International [BPW], an NGO which began in 1930 and now has member groups in 95 countries on 5 continents.

The 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles are: (1) Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality; (2) Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination; (3) Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers; (4) Promote education, training, and professional development for women; (5) Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women; (6) Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy; and, (7) Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

These 7 empowerment principles, however, while designed to be globally applicable, cannot simply be applied as is to each cultural setting. It’s imperative that they be made as culturally relevant as possible in order to achieve maximum success in outcome. The principles can serve as goals. The objectives – the steps taken to achieve each of these goals – can and must differ from one location to the next.

Korea

South Korea, home of Kim Mandeok, has been repeatedly called upon by OECD and others to actively address its gender inequality, particularly in terms of economic and political empowerment. With a gender wage gap more than twice that of the OECD average, only 8% of women in supervisory roles, 1 female to every 4 male university graduates hired, less than 5% female corporate executives, and one of the lowest female employment rates of OECD nations in 2011, Korea has been widely considered one of the worst of the developed nations in regard to gender equality concerns.

However, there are several recent indicators of progress. Earlier this year, the Korean ambassador to the UN, Kim Sook, was named president of the 41-member executive board for UN-Women, and Kim Kum-lae, Korea’s Minister of Gender Equality and Family [MOGEF], gave public declaration at that time that her ministry is “striving to make Korea a global symbol of women’s empowerment.” To that end, Korea signed an MOU with UN-Women in December of 2011 regarding the development of seminars and workshops to enhance women’s capabilities and prevent abuse of women; Korea also donated approximately $4.7 million [USD] to UN-Women last year. More than 30 cities in Korea from 2009 to date, including Jeju Island in March of this year, have been declared “Women-Friendly Cities” following an evaluation process, a title which carries a 5-year development plan of public and private cooperation for gender equality measures. Korea Institute for Gender Equality and Education [KIGEPE] provides training programs, projects, activities and materials regarding gender sensitivity in policy-making, impact assessment, and more.

In 2006, the first 5-year comprehensive plan for the development of women resources, “Dynamic Women of Korea 2010,” was launched, and the second such, “Dynamic Women Korea 2015,” is now underway with 46 measures for improved social environment. The past few years have seen the creation of 81 employment support centers for women and 77 new employment centers, as well as 90 women’s re-employment centers and a number of women’s resources development centers.

In her statement at the 56th CSW, Minister Kim identified the need to eliminate discrimination against and empower indigenous and rural women, and advance gender equality as a matter of sustainable development. She highlighted Korea’s “Support of Female Farmers and Fishers Act” which was enacted in 2001 with a 5-year framework; it is now in its 3rd version (2011-2015) “to advance the rights and interests of rural women and improve their quality of life” including affirmative action, expanded leadership roles, vocational and leadership training programs, and other targeted initiatives. Kim also discussed the Gender Impact Assessment which has been conducted annually by MOGEF since 2004, and the Act on Gender Impact Assessment, enacted in September of last year, which requires local and national governments to conduct same in order to guide policy-making, a process which began in March of this year.

Gender-sensitive budgeting was implemented in Korea at the central government level in 2010, and will be introduced at the local level this year. The 4th framework for women’s policies, to cover years 2013-2017, will see new policy issues in regard to women’s health, and elderly women’s engagement in society. And in 2010, the Gender Equality Index was implemented, providing statistics by sector for targeted policy-making.

On Jeju Island, home of Kim Mandeok and the newest “Women-Friendly City” in Korea’s recent scheme, the Jeju Women’s Governance Forum was founded earlier this year following a full year of developmental procedures. Along with many other related initiatives on this “Island of Women,” this body of 133 members representing the full professional spectrum is charged with conducting research and providing educational and other initiatives in order to guide gender-sensitive policy-making in the island’s provincial government.

Ultimately, the principles of Kim Mandeok must be applied to gender equality and the empowerment of women first on the local and national level in Korea, and then also as a model to other countries in the region and around the world.

Modern-day “Mandeoks”

There are a number of “Mandeoks” across Asia already, powerful women who contribute strongly to their country’s economy and politics. The 2011 Forbes list, “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” includes 12 women from Asian nations, an increase over the previous year’s list which had only 5 from Asia. They are: Indra Nooyi, chief executive, PepsiCo India; Sonia Gandhi, president, India; Cher Wang, cofounder and chair of both the HTC Corporation and VIA Technologies, Taiwan; Aung San Suu Kyi, general secretary, National League for Democracy, Burma; Chan Laiwa and family, chair, Fu Wah International Group, China; Chanda Kochhar, CEO, ICICI Bank, India; Zhang Xin and family, cofounder and CEO, SOHO, China; Yingluck Sinawatra, prime minister, Thailand; Sri Mulyani Indrawati, managing director, World Bank, Indonesia; Margaret Chan, director general, WHO, China; HO Ching, CEO, Temasek Holdings, Singapore; and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder and chair, BioCon, India.

Forbes has also maintained an annual list entitled, “Asia’s 50 Power Business Women,” which includes these and many more throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Four from South Korea have been identified on that list: Romi Haan, founder and CEO of Haan Corp.; Hyun Jeong-Eun, chair of Hyundai Group; Kim Sung-Joo, founder and CEO/chair of Sungjoo Group / MCM Holdings; and, Lee Mi-Kyung, vice-chair, CJ Entertainment & Media.

Specific to economic empowerment, the 2011 Fortune list, “50 Most Powerful Women in Business: International” (a list which includes all countries other than the US), 22 women from Asia are highlighted: 8 from China, 6 from India, 3 from Singapore, 2 from Hongkong, 2 from Japan, and 1 from Taiwan. They are: Chandra Kochhar; Sock Koong Chua, group CEO, Singapore Telecom, Singapore; Ho Ching; Yafang Sun, chair, Huawei Technologies, China; Deborah “Deb” Henretta, group president, Proctor & Gamble (Asia), Singapore; Cher Wang; Zhang Xin; Umran Beba, president, PepsiCo Asia-Pacific, Hongkong; Mianmian Yang, president, Haier Group, China; Fengying Wang, president, Great Wall Motor, China; Shikha Sharma, managing director and CEO, Axis Bank, India; Junko Nakagawa, CFO, Nomura Holdings, Japan; Neelam Dhawan, managing director, Hewlett-Packard, India; Yoshiko Shinohara, chair and president, Tempstaff, Japan; Shumin Yu, president, Hisense Group, China; Naina Lal Kidwai, group general manager and country head, HSBC, India; Wei Sun Christianson, CEO, Morgan Stanley China, Hongkong; Li Xiaolin, CEO, China Power International Development, Hongkong; Hera Siu, president, SAP, China; Jing Ulrich, managing director and chair of global markets, China, JP Morgan Chase, Hongkong; Preetha Reddy, managing director, Apollo Hospitals Group, India; and, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw.

Perhaps one of the best examples of a modern-day Kim Mandeok in the Asia region can be found not only in these powerful women but also in someone such as Chen Shu-chu, a vegetable seller in Taiwan who achieved worldwide recognition in 2010 for her philanthropy. First identified by Forbes as one of 48 top philanthropists in the Asia-Pacific region, she was soon thereafter included in Time Magazine’s annual list of Asia’s top 100 influential people, in the category of philanthropy, and was chosen as Asian of the Year by Readers’ Digest Asia. The reason: although she makes little profit from her business and has no measurable power according to society’s standards, she keeps her own expenses as low as possible in order to give her money away to people less fortunate than she.

“Money is worthy only if given to those in need,” she has maintained, and in this way she is Mandeok in a way achievable by every woman — and in a way that women are doing every day in every corner of the world.

Conclusion

Kim Mandeok is unique — in the circumstances of her life, era and culture which culminated in unlikely power and opportunity followed by an extraordinary act of compassion. However, she is at the same time Everywoman, in that the women of the world are achieving empowerment and gender equality in varying degrees and are also committing acts of kindness every day.

Mandeok achieved an enormous accumulation of wealth by overcoming the limitations placed upon most women of her time, followed by social recognition — and, in her later years she was presented with and seized an opportunity to give back to her society, a psychological phenomenon quite common in the 5th and 6th decade of the human lifespan.

The message of Kim Mandeok’s life is both timeless and universal, and while her act of compassionate yet pragmatic philanthropy is to be commended, it is her self-actualization and empowerment that have the potential to inspire and empower women around the world. Like Gamunjang-Aegi, the goddess of fortune in Jeju Island’s traditional mythology who at an early age saw within herself the key to her own fate, Mandeok recognized her self-worth and ability and ultimately found a way to achieve her full potential.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment is the key — to a socially and economically, politically and legally balanced world in which global poverty is eradicated and profound acts of philanthropy can be realized.

 

Resources

Commission on the Status of Women [CSW] (2012).  “Indigenous women: key actors in poverty and hunger eradication.” Retrieved at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw56/resolutions_advance_versions/Indigenous-women-CSW56-res-advance.pdf.

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