South Korean Women Role Models Break Glass Ceiling in Finance



Women empowerment in South Korea’s finance sector is slowly starting to see light, with few women cracking the glass ceiling to advance in their roles. Although their strength is equally contributable towards economic empowerment and gender equality initiatives by large financial groups, the glass ceiling in the financial sector is only starting to see cracks now. This is due to the financial industry's conservative and men-centric corporate culture, which has made it difficult for women employees to be promoted to top management positions. Hence, the number of female executives and CEOs is particularly low in this field. Few of the leadership appointments made in the finance industry serve as role models that can inspire female entrepreneurs in South Korea to start their own firms in this regard.

This is thanks to the Financial Supervisory Service, the nation's watchdog over the financial industry, which commanded that the boardrooms should be more gender diverse. 

Women Breaking the Stigma in Climbing the Ladder in the Banking World

The recent transition that four of South Korea’s major bank holding companies went through shines the light on governance changes around gender diversity and internal control. These banks increased the number of female directors on their boards to 10 from seven last year. Now there are 31.3 percent of women independent directors appointed by the four conglomerates, compared to 23.3 percent last year. The highlight in this matter is that KB Financial Group appointed an outside director, Kwon Seon-joo, as the chair of the board.

KB Financial Group Forties Diversity Efforts With Kwon Seon-Joo's Appointment

This marks the first major woman appointment ever since the group‘s founding that a female chair of the board has been elected. Kwon is a banking professional with experience spanning over 40 years in the banking industry. She landed her first banking career at the state-owned Industrial Bank of Korea in 1978 and aced to the CEO role, rising in victor as South Korea‘s first female bank CEO. She comes with years of experience in the banking sector, especially in foreign exchange, credit card business, and consumer protection. Today, she is the leader of Women Corporate Directors' Korean branch, the largest membership group for female corporate board directors worldwide. With a hearty welcome, KB Financial Group sees the appointment of the industry veteran as a hope to advance its governance structure and grow its board diversity. Also, the group plans to raise the percentage of women executives and branch managers to 20 by 2027, including women team leaders, to 30 percent under its latest initiative, ‘KB Diversity 2027’. Now, let’s move on to the Shinhan Financial Group’s appointment of a female board chair.

Shinhan Financial Group Makes History in Women's Board Chair Appointment with Yoon Jae-won

For the first time in 14 years, the Shinhan Financial Group appointed a female board chair named Yoon Jae-won. Currently serving as a professor at Hongik University Business School, Yoon is expected to take on the responsibilities of leading the group’s board committee. Her stewardship is expected to uphold the group’s financial decisions, specifically in matters related to accounting and tax. The banker veteran has led as vice president of the Korean Academic Society of Taxation, including a non-standing membership in the Korea Accounting Standards Board specializing in accounting. The last time the conglomerate appointed a woman for this role dates back to 2010, when Chun Sung-bin chaired the board of directors.

Therefore, this is the second woman chairperson appointment. Also, the conglomerate appointed three more women on the board out of nine seats after Yoon’s appointment.


Other Women Leadership Appointments in South Korea’s Banking Sector

Hana Financial Group welcomed Yoon Shim, a former senior vice president of Samsung SDS, to its board. By 2030, it plans to increase the number of women in management roles to 30 percent.

Another financial conglomerate, Woori Financial Group, plans to have 20 percent of its department heads and 15 percent of its executives as women.

Lastly, Toss Bank appointed former DGB Daegu Bank chief Rhee Eun-mi as its new CEO this year. Rhee is expected to grow the bank’s footprint across local and foreign markets in her administration.

Certainly, these appointments make headlines, and industry experts pointed out the shortage of women leaders in the finance sector due to the conservative corporate culture.

Still the Number of Women Leaders Not Looking Good in the Finance Industry of South Korea

The data from DART, the Financial Supervisory Service's (FSS) electronic disclosure system, indicates that out of 899 executives at 23 domestic financial companies, including the five biggest commercial banks, women hold only nine percent of the executive positions or 84 executive positions. However, the finance industry is not alone in South Korea’s glass ceiling issue. Other industries are also slow to add women to leadership and managerial roles.

Notable Women Leadership Appointments in Other Industries

The appointment of Bang Sil marks history for being the first Korean woman to head the role of Managing Director at Stellantis Korea. Bang possesses over 20 years of experience in the domestic auto business, who will be sharing her plethora of knowledge from a variety of industries, including marketing, sales, and public relations. Previously she served as an executive at Volkswagen Korea and Renault Korea Motors.

Automotive Sector 

Then we have Lynn Lim, who also holds the crown for being the first Korean woman to lead Audi Korea, a division of Volkswagen Group Korea, in 2022. Lim is largely praised for helping Audi with its strategic localization initiatives in the premium car market in Korea.

GM Korea placed Jung Jung-yoon as chief marketing officer (CMO) and established the role of chief strategy officer (CSO) aiming to promote long-term growth and sustainability in the home market.

Mercedes-Benz Korea promoted Kim Na-jung to head the Network Development and Training Academy division, another notable woman leader's ascent through the ranks.

Technology Sector

The Corporate Executive Vice President of Samsung Electronics' Memory Business Division, Sujin Ahnof, was instrumental in the company's cutting-edge memory technology research and development. She is also known for supporting Samsung to maintain its dominance in the market for 20 years and counting.

Trade Sector

Diane Lin, the UK government's Head of Investment for the Indo-Pacific and Middle East at the Department for Business and Trade, capitalized on her talents and used her experience to become an Asian equities investment specialist fund manager in Australia. She founded Australia's first long and short equity hedge fund dedicated solely to Asia in 2008, one of the very few female fund managers of her generation to do so. According to her, the fund had positive returns even throughout the Global Financial Crisis.

The Improvement is Slow, But Still Happening

One good thing to take away is that the average rate of women managers is shown to be growing faster than the overall proportion of female workers in the financial industry. It is slow, but improvement is taking place in the female leadership status of the domestic financial sector. Still, more proactive measures are needed to break the glass ceiling in the sector, especially in decision-making positions as well as managerial roles.

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