Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Breaking news and barriers: South Korea’s first female anchor




Breaking news and barriers: South Korea’s first female anchor

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Five times a week, Lee So-jeong is beamed into living rooms across the country leading its ‘News 9’ bulletin, after she shattered a decades-old glass ceiling in a society that is technologically and economically advanced, but still culturally male-dominated. AFP

Breaking news and barriers: South Korea’s first female anchor

Under gleamingly bright studio lights, Lee So-jeong reads straight from a teleprompter, rehearsing her lines ahead of the primetime newscast for South Korea’s national public broadcaster, KBS.

Five times a week, she is beamed into living rooms across the country leading its News 9 bulletin, after she broke into a decades-old boys’ club in a society that is technologically and economically advanced, but still culturally male-dominated.

South Korean television news broadcasts have long followed the same format: a serious-looking older male anchor announcing the day’s major developments, with a much younger female sidekick delivering lighter items later in the line-up.

Some of those women juniors went on to marry into the billionaire families who own South Korea’s chaebol conglomerates, rather than continue their careers.

Lee’s appointment at state-funded KBS – the Korean Broadcasting System – upended that model. At 43, she even has a younger male sidekick of her own.

Female newsreaders used to be like “pretty flowers”, Lee said. But she had greater ambitions, wanting to transform KBS’s conservative style and capture younger audiences turned off by broadcasts that tended to “rather lecture the viewers”.

The audience share for her programme – the most-watched news broadcast in the country – has risen from 9.6 to 11 per cent since she started in November.

Maternity leave

But Lee feels the pressure of being a trailblazer, knowing – however unfairly – she cannot afford a single mistake.

“If I fail in this, it could disgrace other women reporters as a whole,” she said. “I have to do well so that other female reporters could have more opportunities.

“That sense of responsibility and burden is greater than live-broadcasting primetime news.”

South Korea has transformed itself from the ruins of the Korean War to become the world’s 12th largest economy and an industrial and trading powerhouse, but traditional social values still hold wide sway.

Its gender pay gap is the highest among developed countries, with women making only 66 percent of what men earn, while working mothers face pressures to excel at both child-rearing and their jobs.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
At 43, Lee even has a younger male sidekick of her own. AFP

Many face promotional barriers at work while carrying heavy childcare burdens, often forcing educated women to give up their careers.

Those pressures have led many South Korean women to reject motherhood and the country’s fertility rate – the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime – dropped to 0.98 in 2018, far below the 2.1 needed to keep a population stable.

The trend is all too familiar to Lee, who started in television in 2003 and is herself the mother of a six-year-old son.

“I have seen many veteran female journalists whose career was cut short,” she said. “It was both disappointing and upsetting.”

Such challenges are the subject of a recent hit film, “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982”.

Based on a feminist novel that triggered a backlash among men, it centres on a married South Korean woman who has quit her job and struggles to raise her child with limited support.

Sign of the times

Lee said she had also faced difficulties following her return from a year-long maternity leave.

“I felt like I was not good enough as a mother nor a journalist,” she said.

“Then a senior woman colleague called me in and told me that I should not be too hard on myself.

“I wish young women would try their best at work, but not blame themselves for things out of their control.”

But values are beginning to change, with the country seeing a vocal #MeToo movement in 2018, and Kim Jong-myong, managing director of the KBS news operation, said appointing a female main news anchor met “the demands of the times”.

It would have been “unthinkable” to suggest a woman anchor in the 1980s, he said.

Lee’s role “overturns” the gender norm expected in South Korean society, said women’s rights activist Bae Bok-ju, and was an “encouraging sign” of the country moving in the right direction.

“Delivering major political and social news has long been considered the men’s job while keeping women sidelined,” she said.

“That we have this female main anchor is a sign that South Korea is at a crossroads to fix its gender stereotype at long last.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Seven positive for Covid-19, Hun Sen confirms local transmission

    Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that there has been local community transmission of Covid-19. However, he urged the people not to panic even though the Ministry of Health announced the discovery of seven new cases on Sunday. Among the victims are Chhem Savuth, the director-general

  • Cambodia at ‘most critical moment’, Hun Sen warns

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said the first community transmission of Covid-19 in Cambodia has led the country to the “most critical moment” that warranted urgent, large-scale operations to contain the pandemic. Hun Sen, who confirmed the first local transmission on November 28, said the source of

  • PM confirms community transmission, calls for unity

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has called on the public to stay calm, unite and follow the Ministry of Health guidelines after the wife of a senior official tested positive for Covid-19 in the Kingdom’s first case of community transmission. The case has drawn criticism

  • Over 110 garment factories close

    A government official said on November 22 that at least 110 garment factories had closed in the first nine months of the year and left more than 55,000 workers without jobs – but union leaders worry those numbers could be much higher. Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training undersecretary

  • Singapore group seeks $14M in damages from PPSP over ‘breach of contract’

    Singapore-based Asiatic Group (Holdings) Ltd is seeking a minimum of $14.4 million relief from Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX)-listed Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone Plc (PPSP) for allegedly breaching a power plant joint venture (JV) agreement. Asiatic Group’s wholly-owned Colben System Pte Ltd and 95 per

  • PM vows to protect Hun family

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to continue his fight against opposition politicians who he said intend to smash the Hun family. Without naming the politicians but apparently referring to former leaders of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hun Sen said there