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Balancing work and life a tall order for working moms in South Korea

SEOUL--Lee So-young, a 35-year-old mother of two daughters, was a straight-A student at college.

“I was quite ambitious at that time,” she said in her apartment in Mokdong, southwestern Seoul, recalling graduating summa cum laude at a university in the city.

“I thought I would become a successful career woman ... A stay-at-home mom was the last thing I wanted to be,” she said.

Her career path was on track as a marketing deputy manager at an IT firm in Seoul. But everything changed when she had her first child.

“It was nearly impossible for me both physically and mentally to compete with male colleagues during pregnancy in a business environment that gives more promotion opportunities for those who work longer and are good at entertaining bosses at company dinners,” she said.

Going back to work after having the baby was not easy. Lee was exhausted after competing with her colleagues for promotion during the day and taking care of the baby at night. Three months later, Lee called it quits.

“I realized that I couldn't keep up with the long-hours working culture anymore while leaving my baby behind,” she said. “The funny thing was that no one at work suggested I think twice. They acted as if they knew that I was going to leave the office soon.”

Lee is one of millions of Korean women who have left the workplace mainly because of difficulties in balancing life and work. They are described in Korea as “career-discontinued women.”

The term was coined as the exodus of professional women in this age group — women in their 30s — is bigger than other countries, experts say, and the number of moms returning to work is low.

A recent study compiled by Statistics Korea in 2012 showed that more than 70 percent of women aged between 25 and 29 had entered the job market. The female economic participation rate, however, dropped to 55 percent when women reached their 30s, when they usually start a family. Marriage, pregnancy and infant care were major reasons for them quitting jobs, the study added. The rate slightly moved up among women in their 40s and 50s but not to the level of 20-somethings. For many women, the interruption to their careers lasts a lifetime.

Park's Initiative

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