In the early hours of May 17, 2016, a young man, at random, stabbed a young woman to death in the bathroom of a karaoke bar in Gangnam, a busy, moneyed district of Seoul. The sensational murder quickly became a national flashpoint. It triggered mass protests and a wide-ranging reappraisal of gender relations. Young women rallied in public squares and offered testimonies of the abuse and indignities they’d suffered on the internet, at school, and on the job. Whatever had kept the misogynistic undercurrent in Korean society at bay was now gone; nowhere seemed safe.
At the time, Meeja was a project manager at a “civic tech” firm in Seoul. (She asked to be identified by a pseudonym, for fear of retaliation.) It was her first job after finishing her bachelor’s degree at Yonsei University, one of South Korea’s top colleges, and she was tasked with researching how tech could get people more involved in politics and social policy. When the “Gangnam murder” occurred, Meeja was deeply shaken—and surprised by her colleagues’ lack of feeling. “Nobody around me was talking about it,” she recalled. She resented the old-fashioned vibe in the office and wondered how else she might channel her interest in design and social systems to mobilize against everyday sexism in South Korea. So Meeja quit her job and decided to become a programmer.
She enrolled in a coding academy paid for by the federal government. Seven years ago, in an effort to diversify an economy long dominated by chaebol mega-corporations, the South Korean state turned to tech. As part of the country’s gukbi jiwon national-education program, it started offering subsidies to startups and skills training to aspiring developers, who can earn a solid starting salary of between $25,000 and $30,000. This was a logical step: the country boasts a leading semiconductor industry, some of the world’s fastest internet speeds, the world’s most per capita internet users, and its highest rate of smartphone ownership. Yet only 173,000 Koreans, less than 1% of all working adults, hold jobs as programmers, according to data collected by Korea’s ministry of employment and labor. One survey found that only 14% of Korean coders are women.
The sexism Meeja wanted to uproot runs deep in South Korea’s tech scene. It isn’t just that the industry is dominated by men; it’s that the local web seems especially hateful toward women. The nation’s small size and homogeneity, combined with strong traditional mores and hyperconnectedness, has bred an online culture in which men feel both indignant and omnipotent. In recent years, a vogue for amateur “spy cams” and revenge porn has turned women’s toilets and dressing rooms throughout the country into spaces of fear. On internet bulletin boards and chat rooms, men freely advocate violence against women, seemingly with little consequence. Meanwhile, in 2018, a woman was sentenced to 10 months in prison for secretly photographing and posting an image of a man posing nude at an art college.
As all this unfolded, Meeja became involved with Tech Femi, an informal meetup group for women (and male allies) in tech, and in late 2016, inspired by their organizing, she began conducting a series of interviews with women in the field. The dossier she compiled, later published on a password-protected feminist blogging platform called the Pinch, reads like the pathology of an acutely sick organism in an ailing colony. Bros glorifying “all-night work,” women told to be designers but not engineers, and bosses warning new female hires not to have their pregnancies overlap. Meeja circulated the document among her peers, while national press began to report on feminist currents in tech. Headlines read, “Old boys’ club? Women make their own network!” and “Women don’t have a head for science? ‘Tech Femi’ busts a male cartel.” Women-only gatherings started to multiply. On trips to Seoul in 2017 and 2018, I was struck by how these movements had vastly increased awareness around gender inequality.
By 2019, Tech Femi’s efforts had simmered down, though there are still constant reminders of how far Korean women have to go. Last spring, several K-pop stars associated with Burning Sun, a nightclub in Gangnam, were prosecuted for rape and sharing unlawfully obtained images and videos in chat rooms. A few months later, Dr. Jho Sung-wook, who’d been nominated to lead the country’s trade commission, was reproached by a conservative member of parliament for having failed to marry and procreate: “The low birth rate is ruining the country’s future,” he said. “Your success is important, but I hope you can contribute to the country’s development too.” Jho responded with a polite smirk. In October and November, the apparent suicides of K-pop singers Sulli and Goo Hara, who’d been viciously bullied online, reignited feminist sentiment. And earlier this year, despite fears of the coronavirus, Korean women came out to protest yet another episode of internet sexual abuse: this time, the organized exploitation and blackmail of more than 100 women and girls in videos posted to the messaging app Telegram. Police have questioned dozens of teenage boys and young men in connection with the case but made only a handful of arrests. After the midterm election in April, the National Assembly quickly passed a few bills increasing penalties for digital sex crimes; the new laws are now in effect.
For many reasons, it’s rare to come across a Korean woman who has had a long career in tech, Meeja told Rest of World. In 2018, she took a front-end engineering job at a small but fast-growing ed-tech company where she was one of two women developers. That number would soon increase, then shrink again, but the office was progressive by Korean industry standards. A few months into the job, Meeja had the idea of advocating for a code of conduct, a rarity in nonunionized offices. Her manager was receptive, so she proposed establishing guidelines for meetings and communication as well as sexual harassment, gender, and race discrimination. “It was really difficult. We held a series of discussions, and everyone was in a different place. Some people felt it would be too restrictive; others thought it would be too limited,” she said. But eventually she and her coworkers all agreed on a governing set of rules. “It’s much better than not having anything at all,” she said. “Even though it isn’t binding, it’s something I can go back to if someone says something, or if anything happens.”
Meeja quietly shared this code of conduct with people she knew through Tech Femi, hoping to spread the idea of a more democratic, accountable workplace. In the long term, she aimed to grow her programming repertoire and, eventually, test into a larger firm — perhaps Naver or Kakao, Korea’s tech giants, or even Apple, Google, Facebook, or Amazon. In the short term, she focused on finding a place of her own closer to work; she successfully moved into a more commuter-friendly apartment late last year. Her company, like most tech firms in Seoul, is located in Gangnam.