Tuesday, October 7, 2008

ICWIP: Seoul-searching

(You knew I had to make at least one Seoul pun, right?)

Last week, I gave talks at three universities here in Seoul: Sejong, Seoul National University (SNU), and Yonsei.  The basic schedule has been the same: arrive, get oriented, give talk, go out to dinner. There have been varying amounts of pre- and post-talk chatting with people, depending on whether or not I arrived in enough time, and whether or not the custom was to give students time to chat with the speaker.

I had a particularly interesting conversation at SNU, where my host was a woman. We poked some fun at the stereotype that all Korean parents want their kids to become medical doctors or lawyers: apparently the stereotype holds both in South Korea and the United States! Anyway, she thought that this attitude made careers in pure science unpopular in South Korea: people are more interested in practical careers, devoting more interest and resources to technology and engineering than esoteric pursuits like astronomy. It's funny, because even though professors are very highly respected in South Korea, they don't necessarily get paid much. On the other hand, lucrative professions (i.e. lawyering) aren't as well respected, but everyone wants their kids to pursue them anyway. It seems you can have either wealth or esteem, but not both at once.

My impression is that at least in astronomy, women faculty in Korea aren't necessarily doing a whole lot worse than their US counterparts. I didn't get the sense that the departments I visited had any lower representation of women faculty than the US. Then again, it's a pretty small sample size: I only saw the three departments, and each has less than 10 professors. Then again, perhaps if the field was more competitive, it might be more of an issue. Certainly there were plenty of female students in all the departments I visited. Then again, most of the students seemed to be undergrads.

I also had an interesting conversation with my mother's best friend from college, who is a retired professor herself. She noted that South Korea's population is aging rapidly, and complained that people these days just weren't interested in having babies. I noted that perhaps women would be more willing to have babies if Korean society weren't so insistent on traditional gender roles. She told me that it sounded like the sort of problem which needs a lot of social activism, so even though she worries about these kinds of issues, she's too busy to spend time doing anything about it. And really, who does? When you're busy with your day-to-day work, keeping up your house, taking care of the kids, and whatever else life chooses to throw your way, it's that much more effort to fight against cultural attitudes, which is a lot like trying to fight smoke with a sword. However, someone needs to fight that battle, and perhaps the first battle is to figure out what a better weapon might be.

It's been extremely interesting comparing and contrasting cultural attitudes in Korea versus the US, and I look forward to hearing about other countries at the ICWIP meeting this week, too.

No comments: