Skip to main content

Macro-level gender equality and women’s depressive symptoms in South Korea: a longitudinal study

Abstract

Purpose

In 2014, the Korean Government passed the Gender Equality Act, which was accompanied by policies to increase women’s participation in the labour force and representation in positions of power in the public and private sectors. While Korea has witnessed modest progress in macro-level gender equality, little is known about the effects of these changes on mental health outcomes. Our study investigated the relationship between regional-level gender equality (as measured by women’s economic and political power) and women’s depressive symptoms from 2013–18, and whether the effects differed across women from different socioeconomic positions.

Methods

To examine how change over time in political and economic power influences the severity of depressive symptoms, we applied a fixed-effect regression, using a nationally representative sample for women aged 19–64 (n = 9,589) from the Korean Longitudinal Survey of Women and Families (2013–2018, wave 4 to 6) residing across the 16 regions of South Korea.

Results

Our study found that increases in women’s political and economic power led to moderate reductions in depressive symptoms (–0.25 and –0.23 points in CESD respectively). Sensitivity analyses indicate that economic power is more consistently associated with subsequent reductions in CESD. The effect of economic and political power on depressive symptoms did not differ by women’s socioeconomic positions.

Conclusions

Our findings suggest that even modest improvements in gender equality were associated with increases in women’s mental health. Further progress to ensure gender equality, such as the anti-discrimination legislation, may lead to greater improvements in public mental health.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Data availability

The Korean Longitudinal Survey of Women and Families is publicly available from the Korean Women’s Development Institute website.

References

  1. Stepanikova I, Acharya S, Abdalla S et al (2020) Gender discrimination and depressive symptoms among child-bearing women: ELSPAC-CZ cohort study. E Clin Med 20:100297

    Google Scholar 

  2. Chen Y-Y, Subramanian SV, Acevedo-Garcia D, Kawachi I (2005) Women’s status and depressive symptoms: a multilevel analysis. Soc Sci Med 60:49–60

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. McLaughlin KA, Xuan Z, Subramanian SV, Koenen KC (2011) State-level women’s status and psychiatric disorders among US women. Soc Psychiatr Psychiatr Epidemiol 46:1161–1171

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Van de Velde S, Huijts T, Bracke P, Bambra C (2013) Macro-level gender equality and depression in men and women in Europe. Sociol Health Illn 35:682–698

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Kim Y-J, Kim S (2020) Relational ethics as a cultural constraint on fathers’ parental leave in a Confucian welfare state, South Korea. Soc Policy Adm 54:684–698

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Soh C-HS (1993) Sexual equality, male superiority, and Korean women in politics: changing gender relations in a “patriarchal democracy.” Sex Roles 28:73–90

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Kim KH, Rou SY, Ali TIMTM, Kim J (2019) Female stereotyping and gender socialization through proverbs and idioms: a comparative Study of Malaysia and Korea. Asian Women 35:25–44

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Kim H (2021) Abolishment of hojuje. East Asia young act. Netw. Program. http://eayan.org/2021/01/abolishment-of-hojuje/. Accessed 27 July 2022

  9. Oh J (2007) Women’s political participation and the change of family law: a case study of the abolition process of family head system (the Hojuje) in Korea. Asian Women 23:97–121

    Google Scholar 

  10. Son S (2014) Korean divorced mothers’ experiences with child support from noncustodial fathers. Int J Hum Ecol 15:38–50

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Cho Y, Kang H, Park J (2017) Korean women in leadership: Challenges and opportunities. In: Cho Y, Ghosh R (eds) Current perspectives on Asian women in leadership. Springer, cham, pp 87–106

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  12. OECD (2012) Closing the gender gap: Act now. OECD Publishing Paris. https://www.oecd.org/els/family/closingthegap.htm. Accessed 27 July 2022

  13. Kim J, Lee J-W, Shin K (2018) Gender inequality and economic growth in Korea. Pac Econ Rev 23:658–682

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Mansury Y, Baek K-H (2019) Gender inequality among urban households in South Korea. Reg Sci Policy Pract 11:23–38

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Kim J, Lee J-W, Shin K (2016) Impact of gender inequality on the Republic of Korea’s long-term economic growth: an application of the theoretical model of gender inequality and economic growth. SSRN Electron J. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2737837

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Ministry of strategy and finance (2014) 3-year plan for economic innovation. Seoul, Korea. https://english.moef.go.kr/popup/14_PolicyFocusBanner_20140401/popup.html. Accessed 27 July 2022

  17. Ministry of gender equality and family (2019) Research on regional level gender equality. https://www.korea.kr/archive/expDocView.do?docId=38981. Accessed 27 July 2022

  18. World economic forum (2021) Global gender gap report 2021. https://www.weforum.org/reports/global-gender-gap-report-2021/. Accessed 27 July 2022

  19. OECD (2018) Suicide rates. https://doi.org/10.1787/a82f3459-en

  20. Kim I-H, Muntaner C, Khang Y-H et al (2006) The relationship between nonstandard working and mental health in a representative sample of the South Korean population. Soc Sci Med 63:566–574. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.02.004

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. King TL, Kavanagh A, Scovelle AJ, Milner A (2020) Associations between gender equality and health: a systematic review. Health Promot Int 35:27–41

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. Kuehner C (2017) Why is depression more common among women than among men? Lancet Psychiatr 4:146–158

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Yllo K (1983) Sexual equality and violence against wives in American states. J Comp Fam Stud 14:67–86

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Simon RW (2014) Twenty years of the sociology of mental health The continued significance of gender and marital status for emotional well-being In: Robert J. Johnson, R. Jay Turner, (eds) Sociology of mental health. Springer, NY. pp 21–51.

  25. Vigod SN, Rochon PA (2020) The impact of gender discrimination on a woman’s mental health. E Clinical Medicine 20:100311–100311

  26. Coe I (2019) Feminism is for everybody. Lancet 393:493

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Syed IU (2021) Feminist Political Economy of Health: Current Perspectives and Future Directions. Healthc Multidiscip Digit Publ Instit 9(3):233

    Google Scholar 

  28. Kawachi I, Kennedy BP, Gupta V, Prothrow-Stith D (1999) Women’s status and the health of women and men: a view from the States. Soc Sci Med 48:21–32

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Homan P (2017) Political gender inequality and infant mortality in the United States, 1990–2012. Soc Sci Med 182:127–135

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Backhans MC, Lundberg M, Månsdotter A (2007) Does increased gender equality lead to a convergence of health outcomes for men and women? a study of Swedish municipalities. Soc Sci Med 64:1892–1903

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Bilal U, Beltrán P, Fernández E et al (2016) Gender equality and smoking: a theory-driven approach to smoking gender differences in Spain. Tob Control 25:295–300

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Dahlin J, Härkönen J (2013) Cross-national differences in the gender gap in subjective health in Europe: does country-level gender equality matter? Soc Sci Med 98:24–28

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Yu M-Y, Sarri R (1997) Women’s health status and gender inequality in China. Soc Sci Med 45:1885–1898. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0277-9536(97)00127-5

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  34. Yu S (2018) Uncovering the hidden impacts of inequality on mental health: a global study. Transl Psychiatr 8:1–10

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Gunasekara FI, Richardson K, Carter K, Blakely T (2014) Fixed effects analysis of repeated measures data. Int J Epidemiol 43:264–269. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyt221

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  36. The Korean longitudinal survey of women and families (2012) Overview. Seoul, Korea. https://klowf.kwdi.re.kr/portal/eng/mainPage.do?. Accessed 27 July 2022

  37. Williams MW, Li C-Y, Hay CC (2020) Validation of the 10-item center for epidemiologic studies depression scale post stroke. J Stroke Cerebrovasc Dis 29:105334. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jstrokecerebrovasdis.2020.105334

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  38. Edwards SR, Bradshaw KA, Hinsz VB (2014) Denying rape but endorsing forceful intercourse: exploring differences among responders. Violence Gend 1:188–193

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Ministry of gender equality and family (2018) A study on the status of single-parent families. Seoul, Korea. http://www.mogef.go.kr/mp/pcd/mp_pcd_s001d.do?mid=plc503&bbtSn=704815. Accessed 27 July 2022

  40. Mansournia MA, Nazemipour M, Naimi AI et al (2021) Reflection on modern methods: demystifying robust standard errors for epidemiologists. Int J Epidemiol 50:346–351

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Blumberg RL, Coleman MT (1989) A theoretical look at the gender balance of power in the American couple. J Fam Issues 10:225–250

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Statistics Korea (2021) Official statistics. https://index.go.kr/smart/mbl/chart_view.do?idx_cd=1588. Accessed 27 July 2022

  43. Thomas S, Welch S (2001) The impact of women in state legislatures. Impact Women Public Off 1:166–181

    Google Scholar 

  44. Carroll SJ (1984) Woman candidates and support for feminist concerns: the closet feminist syndrome. West Polit Q 37:307–323

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Rauhala E (2012) The strongman’s daughter. TIME magazine. http://content.time.com/time/covers/asia/0,16641,20121217,00.html. Accessed 27 July 2022

  46. Chung W, Kim R (2015) Are married men healthier than single women? a gender comparison of the health effects of marriage and marital satisfaction in East Asia. PLoS ONE 10:e0134260

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Yip PS, Chen Y-Y, Yousuf S et al (2012) Towards a reassessment of the role of divorce in suicide outcomes: evidence from five pacific rim populations. Soc Sci Med 75:358–366

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Kim H-K (2009) Analyzing the gender division of labor: The cases of the United States and South Korea. Asian Perspect 33:181–229

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Fraser N (1996) Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition. Routledge

  50. Kim C, Nielsen A, Teo C, Chum A (2022) Social movement and mental health of Korean women sexual violence survivors, 2012–2019. Am J Public Health (Accepted for publication in American Journal of Public Health on May 6th, 2022). http://ssrn.com/abstract=4115815

  51. Chase T (2012) Problems of publicity: Online activism and discussion of same-sex sexuality in South Korea and China. Asian Stud Rev 36:151–170

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Funding

Funding for this study and the principal investigator, Antony Chum, are supported by the Canada Research Chair programme (CRC-2021–00269). The funding agencies had no role in the design and conduct of the study; the collection, management, analysis or interpretation of the data; the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

CK and AC conceived the study, CK, CT, AN and AC drafted the first versions of the manuscript, and CK performed the data management and statistical analyses. Funding was provided by AC for the study. All authors contributed to the design of the study and the interpretation of data, contributed important intellectual content to the manuscript and have approved the final version to be published.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Antony Chum.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Supplementary Information

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary file1 (DOCX 111 KB)

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Kim, C., Teo, C., Nielsen, A. et al. Macro-level gender equality and women’s depressive symptoms in South Korea: a longitudinal study. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-022-02335-6

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-022-02335-6

Keywords

  • Women
  • Gender equality
  • Depression
  • Mental health
  • Longitudinal study
  • Asia