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Park Geun-hye, whose election to the presidency in 2013 was a historic moment for gender equality in South Korea, has overshadowed any memory of that accomplishment with a scandal of equally historic proportions. Park's expressed willingness to resign is an attempt to stave off a looming impeachment vote over a massive government corruption scandal involving Choi Soon-sil, the shadowy leader of an equally shadowy religious cult. Choi, an adviser to Park, has been indicted on multiple charges of using her ties to the "Blue House" for financial gain to the tune of $70 million. Prosecutors have now extended their investigation and have officially accused Park of participating in a criminal conspiracy.
Gender-insensitive slurs have already become common in the anti-government protests that have been rocking South Korea for weeks. The scandal is a painful blow for women's rights activists in the country, who enthusiastically welcomed Park's victory in 2012 as a milestone in South Korea's patriarchal society. The uproar surrounding Park and Choi has caused many South Korean women to worry that the country, already trailing behind in terms of global gender equality, could become even more reluctant to elect women to positions of power.
Indeed, the past few weeks have been alarming for those who want to raise the status of women in politics and business. Donald Trump's defeat of Hillary Clinton prevented one of the most resilient glass ceilings in US politics from finally crashing down. The President-elect bases his entire brand on his loathsome treatment of women, who he routinely describes as "fat", "pigs", "dogs", "slobs" or "disgusting animals".
Trump's hateful rhetoric towards women is only matched by the laundry list of progressive reforms he will trample once in office. By tapping Tom Price, an outspoken opponent of Obamacare and social benefits, for the position of health and human services, Trump signed the epitaph for his campaign promise to provide six weeks maternity leave for new mothers. Price had voted against previous proposals expanding maternity benefits, and his 242-page blueprint on health insurance is a complete dismantlement of Obamacare - including provisions that forced insurance providers to include prenatal and childbirth in all plans.
Women of the world unite
The recent slew of bad news for women's empowerment can sap the energy of even the most dedicated advocate. But, as President Obama said while trying to comfort his White House aides in the wake of Trump's win, history and change do not follow a straight line. They tend "to zig and zag", to ebb and flow.
With parts of the West hell-bent on placing themselves on the wrong side of history, we should keep Obama's words well in mind. The world does not move in lockstep: while some of the world is backsliding, others are breaking their own glass ceilings for good.
The Nordic countries, for one, consistently rank highest worldwide in terms of women in the workforce and the number of women in senior corporate positions. For the past seven years, Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index. Thanks to quotas, women hold 44% of seats on listed-company boards. Voluntary political party quotas have led to women holding 44% of parliamentary seats. Iceland has generous maternity and paternity leave policies, and the government has enacted measures to encourage men to take time off when they have a child. All of this has been a boon for Iceland's economy and for the standing of women in society.
Other countries are beginning to look up to Iceland as models to aspire to. Take Japan, which now boasts one of the highest rates of female participation in the workforce, at 66%. With the Japanese workforce expected to contract by over one-third by 2060, it is vitally important that more women join the ranks of the employed, if only to support an increasingly graying population. Trying to get ahead of the curve, the government has revived a target of having 30% of leadership positions filled by women by 2020. Of course, much remains to be done. Japan ranks 155th worldwide in terms of the number of women in the House of Representatives, and many women with university degrees find themselves sitting at home, frozen out of the job market by entrenched patriarchal norms.
Even Saudi Arabia is working to undo centuries of illiberal cultural hurdles to women's participation. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced this year a wide-ranging diversification program that includes boosting the role of women in the economy. As part of this program, the government has introduced educational initiatives to provide women with the skills to enter the labor market and to prepare them for entrepreneurship, while loosening labor market restrictions in the retail and hospitality sectors. These will not just increase women's participation in the labor market, but will also spur foreign investment from countries like the UK at a critical time: at this very moment,Theresa May is in Bahrain to push forward a trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (which counts Riyadh as its largest member). As May herself put it, countries like Britain can leverage longstanding relationships and sizeable private-sector presence in the Gulf economies to serve as a "force for good" in pushing forward overdue reforms in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
These examples show the arguments for women in the labor market are as economically sound as they are morally grounded. Conversely, trying to clamp down on women's rights can only backfire over the long-term. As Obama said on the morning following Trump's surprise win: "That's the way politics works sometimes. We try really hard to persuade people that we're right and then people vote. And then if we lose, we learn from our mistakes, we do some reflection, we lick our wounds, we brush ourselves off, we get back in the arena, we go at it. We try even harder the next time."