Korean women reject 'drink or be fired' culture

Tired of being forced to down corrosive combinations of beer and rice wine to climb the career ladder, Korean women are fighting back against the business binge-drinking culture.

The recent High Court victory of a 29-year-old female subordinate forced to get drunk by her boss has set the ball rolling. He was found guilty of a "violation of human dignity" and she won damages.

Three more cases are soon to start and on Monday the Korean United Women's Association is calling people on to the streets in Seoul to protest against the drinking culture and the sexual harassment that can accompany it.

The South Korean capital remains one of the few places in the world where blasting the brain with booze is a business practice that is encouraged and enforced, with sanctions for those who refuse to drink - who more often than not are women.

These alcohol-sodden rituals begin in a restaurant with boilermakers (rice alcohol mixed with beer) and fried pork. The binge-drinking, often described as a team-building event, then moves on to a mandatory second round in a bar followed by a third in a karaoke club. There is only one goal - to get paralytic.

"I wish I'd sued my boss," says a 35-year-old woman who used to work for one of Korea's leading conglomerates and was sexually harassed at a mind-bending drinking session. It started with boilermakers," said the woman. "You have to drink everything in one go and then a senior colleague pours another. I was crazy drunk within 30 minutes."

The evening left her incapacitated and locked in a bathroom with a male colleague. She refuses to discuss what happened next but she quit the company within a month, suffering from a traumatic mix of shame and embarrassment.

"This woman's story is so common," says Chung Woo-jin, a social welfare professor at Yonsei University in Seoul who has studied the phenomenon. "In adapting to the work environment women are being forced to smoke and drink more to be accepted."

Korea's binge-drinking culture began during the economic hardship of the Seventies and its rituals were codified in the Eighties, during the military dictatorships, when rules of army life seeped into the corporate world. For that reason, booze is most deeply entrenched in Korea's sprawling public sector.

In Korea, a junior employee is expected to accept a drink from a senior colleague. "Koreans think that binge-drinking helps business relations," says Cho Surnggiei, a researcher at the Korean Alcohol Research Foundation, which is financed largely by the drinks industry. "When drinking, people become irrational - it's easier to control the will of employees when they become alcohol-dependent."

Cass, a Korean beer company, recently released a new product with twice the alcohol of average brews after it realised sales of its other products were falling because they took too long to get people drunk. To walk through Seoul after 10pm on a weeknight means an encounter with waves of drunks, almost all in dark suits. They are often followed by groups of women who look just as unsteady, but seem far less comfortable with their condition.

But women in executive positions are trying to change the culture from the inside. In companies where there is a significant female presence, groups of women have begun trying to replace team-building binges in bars with theatre outings or dinners in European-style restaurants. However, changing a deeply entrenched tradition will not happen overnight.

"At a recent interview, for an executive job in government, I was asked if I was a good drinker," said Kim Hae-won. "When I told the all-male panel that I didn't drink the senior interviewer expressed disappointment." Ms Kim got the job and has encouraged her female colleagues to rebel against the drinking culture. But that has sparked much hostility towards her: "When I refused to take any more drink a top official said I should be fired."

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