Valuable Women: Gendered Strategies for Success in Korean College Culture

Elise Michelle Mellinger

PhD Thesis. 2000

How do Korean women in elite colleges prepare for professional careers in a society which is patriarchal and Confucian, yet globalizing and modern? This research shows how these women struggle with conflicting notions of sexuality, gender, and tradition as they move into previously male-dominated social realms. The debate over single-sex versus mixed schooling for women both illustrates and contributes to this conflict. Educational research in the United States indicates that women in single-sex schools are more likely to be high-aspiring than their coed counterparts.

To explore this question cross-culturally, I compared the college experiences of women in two coed and two women's universities in Seoul. Research methodology included participant-observation in a college boarding house, ethnographic interviews with nineteen women's university and twenty-one coed university students, and questionnaires. Data was also drawn from student essays, publications, and interactions with nineteen of the forty interviewees over five years.

Findings from this research suggest that differences between coed and women's university students stem more from the linkage between gendered images and college environments than from the aspirations of the students. Both groups of students want to be professionals, "valuable women in society." However, public discourse in Korea links women's colleges with images of the traditional wise mother and good wife, and coed university students with modern professional women. Korean women nowadays prefer coed universities. Nonetheless, teachers and parents often urge girls to apply to lower-ranked women's universities to avoid failure, while boys are pushed toward higher-ranked universities. Academic career strategies include learning English and computer skills, and studying abroad. Social career strategies consist of building social networks, "learning about men", and gathering information. Women's university students rely more on blind dating to do this, which reinforces their image as traditional Korean women. Coed women students interact with men "naturally," but most counter sexualized images. Many do this by avoiding or postponing romance.

Finally, women's university students in the humanities or social sciences seem to prefer English-based, female-dominated fields such as teaching and translating. Their coed counterparts aim for exam-based careers such as the media, large companies, or government work.