Technology is gendered. It may be treated as neutral, but its application and support through government policy impact gendered identities, needs and priorities. South Korea’s pandemic response and post-pandemic strategy have inadvertently reversed the nation’s progress in promoting gender equality. This article reviews two gendered experiences of the digital transformation precipitated by Covid-19. It points out the absence of gender inclusion in the national policy advocating digital transformation, and the resulting marginalisation of women.
Covid-19 in South Korea: Going digital
In late February 2020, about a month before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic, South Korea experienced its first mass infections at a local church in Daegu. A few weeks later, new cases peaked at 909 in a single day; after that, the number of new cases halved every week, and the first curve was flattened in three weeks from the peak.
Unlike many countries that imposed lockdowns to minimise the spread of the virus, South Korea never shut down its economy or closed its national borders. Among many factors, digital technologies have been central to the South Korean pandemic response, allowing citizens to maintain at least minimum social and economic activity.
South Korea leads the world in smartphone ownership; 93% of the adult population has such a device. The South Korean government has used mobile messaging to share virus-related information with the citizens, such as sanitation guidelines, the number of daily infections, and the detailed movements of people who have tested positive. Besides being used to gather and share epidemiological information, digital technologies have played a prominent role in many other activities during the pandemic. When schools were periodically closed in certain areas, classes were conducted on online platforms, where students could meet their teachers and friends remotely. Many offices allowed staff to work from home, using the company’s intranet and applications. People who previously commuted to work in the cities were staying at home and adapting to the ‘new normal’, which meant relying on digital infrastructure that transformed their way of life.
In preparation for the post-pandemic world, South Korea established a new policy, the Digital New Deal, promising digital transformation across different social sectors. The Digital New Deal comes from the national consensus that Covid-19 has expedited structural transformation, enhancing the global digital economy. In its five-year roadmap, the policy emphasises the promotion of high-quality digital infrastructure for government, industry and education.
However, during the pandemic, digital technology has not equally benefited all parts of society. While the ‘new normal’ has demonstrated what a society reliant on digital technology and non-face-to-face activities would look like, it has also revealed another reality that cautions against an overly optimistic view of digital transformation. There are many aspects of home life that cannot be digitalised, such as housework, feeding the family, and childcare; and these activities tend to be highly gendered.
Two realities of Covid-19 in digital transformation
A survey published by the Korean Ministry of Employment and Labour on 24 September 2020 stated that 48.8% of workers had experienced telecommuting during the pandemic. Especially, office workers in finance (66.7%), art and leisure (66.7%), education (62.5%), and information and communications technology (61.5%) had the highest rates of working remotely. Apart from workers in hospitality, restaurants, manufacturing, wholesale and retail businesses, a majority of employees worked at home through their digital devices, their company’s intranet, and digital networks across the country.
Figure 1 shows a typical telecommuter’s daily schedule: logging into the intranet and communicating through email, phone, and video conferences. Surveyed workers reported a 66.7% rate of satisfaction regarding the efficiency of working at home.
The Digital New Deal expands the strengths of telecommuting into two primary areas. First, the policy aims to integrate 5G and Artificial Intelligence into all industries. One of five projects toward this goal is fostering a non-face-to-face industry to create new jobs in digital industries and start-ups. Second, the project promotes a broader range of digital transformation by funding small and medium-sized businesses in developing non-face-to-face infrastructure and services. This includes shared spaces for video discussions, equipped with high-quality digital infrastructure that enables companies to host and participate in online events and international conferences. South Korea envisions a new normal with digitally connected labourers.
On the other hand, many families have faced another reality at home during Covid-19. During the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, the Korean government postponed the start of school for children in grades 1 to 12 for about two months. All schools, day-care centres and private educational institutes were closed. Since children had to stay at home, someone had to take care of them. Starting from 9 April 2020, students successively began their semester online, from the upper grades to the lower grades. The new educational system required daily support from home, with parental supervision of online coursework, especially for younger children.
Figure 2 represents a typical daily schedule for a parent or caretaker with at least one child in an online education program. From August to September 2020, the Womenlink – a private organisation working for gender equality in South Korea – interviewed 89 women about the difficulty of caring for their families during Covid-19. The survey included 25 full-time mothers, 58 workers, and six people who had been laid off. The interview participants reported a substantial increase in domestic labour. With family members staying home 24/7, the repetitive routine of preparing three meals a day generally fell to the wife and mother. When a school offered online education, the mother was encouraged to be a manager/tutor, following up with her children’s course schedules as well as their psychological adjustment and stability. The closure of public institutions for childcare and education forced one family member into an endless shift of childcare and housework. Regardless of her employment status, the mother ended up taking primary responsibility for maintaining the home, feeding the family members working and studying at home, and supporting the online classes and assignments of her children.
Moreover, the extra burden of domestic care was found to be impacting many women’s performance at work. For working mothers, it was challenging to hold the roles of employee and caregiver concurrently. In the absence of suitable childcare alternatives, many mothers made the decision to quit their jobs, according to Womenlink’s survey. Even though the government provided temporary public services such as Emergency Childcare Service and Emergency Childcare Leave, these did not meet the needs of all families with two working parents. Mothers who were asked to work remotely from home, while their children were also at home, could not draw clear boundaries in terms of time and attention focused on their work and their families’ needs. While telecommuting offered a digital solution to the problem of work during the pandemic, responsibility for childcare shifted from the national system to the (usually female) individual.
South Korea has spent more than a decade establishing public institutions and services for childcare and education for all ages, including day-care centres, kindergartens and schools, to decrease gender inequality in childcare, which has traditionally been imposed on female members of a family. Due to Covid-19, however, childcare responsibility came back to the family, specifically its female members. The work of caregivers has not been a part of the digital transformation. When social infrastructure became digitalised during the new normal of Covid-19, female members were excluded from the new system, becoming unwilling supporters of the digital system who made non-face-to-face activity possible by providing necessary face-to-face labour at home. While many industries shifted to digital operations, society left essential domestic labour that cannot be digitalised to female family members. Even though the South Korean Covid-19 strategy using digital infrastructure managed to minimise economic losses, the insensitivity to gender inequality has reinforced traditional inequality in the social system.
The government’s pandemic response policy, the Digital New Deal, excludes solutions for the gendered experiences induced by the pandemic. While the Digital New Deal offers a blueprint for a digitalised economy, there is no specific roadmap for gendered domestic work, which is marginalised in the overall digital transformation of society. The policy sets twelve goals in four major areas, but careful consideration of gender inclusion is entirely missing.
Moving forward: Inclusion of women in ICT policymaking
Technology is gendered. Policies devised to advance technology inevitably reflect gender divisions and inequalities. The South Korean blueprint for a post-pandemic world, guided by the Digital New Deal, overlooks the political aspects of technology, and the ways in which digital technology configures gender identities, needs and priorities. Without considering other realities of digital transformation, the Digital New Deal in its current form is reinforcing gender inequality and weakening gender digital inclusion. Gender equality is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The UN advocates for global society to “recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.” (SDG 5, Target 4). Unfortunately, the South Korean strategy overlooks the essential role of unpaid care and non-digital domestic work in maintaining the digitally transformed economy.
Therefore, social and political attention must be given to the population that is being marginalised by the digital transformation. The Digital New Deal exposes how digital policy leaves specific groups of people behind, especially women. Marginalised and gendered experiences should be given greater consideration in the digital innovation process and policymaking. Despite domestic efforts to support digitally transformed systems, the Digital New Deal has not paid enough attention to women’s interests and priorities. In fact, it can be called a very masculine project. To guarantee sustainable digital transformation for all, the inclusion of women in the ICT policymaking and digital innovation process should be promoted.
There is a need for gender power relations to be renegotiated in the sociotechnical setting. Instead of reinforcing a deep-rooted culture of gender inequality, the new ICT policy should include a blueprint for gender digital inclusion and women’s empowerment. The UN’s SDG 5 targets women’s empowerment through ICT. Gendered voices must be included in the policymaking process, and women’s access to digital technologies and their priorities in digital transformation must be examined. The hidden reality of Covid-19 is that it has caused a regression in gender equality. Our vision of post-pandemic digital transformation must be gender inclusive if it is to advance the well-being of society as well as bringing immediate benefits to the economy.