To celebrate International Women’s Day, SIWA invited students from our sponsor’s international schools and Korean schools that SIWA supports in two divisions, Junior and Senior, to submit essays addressing this year’s theme, #BalanceforBetter

Andrew Kim from Seoul Foreign School submitted this winning essay in the Junior Division. He was awarded a certificate of recognition at SIWA’s March Coffee Morning where he read an excerpt from his essay. In addition, 300,000 KRW will be donated to his vetted charity of choice, AGIT & Anna’s House.

It was a difficult decision, but it was one she knew and wanted to make. She hesitated as she handed in her letter of resignation. She always knew that she might have to make the choice between motherhood or her career, but it was still a hard one.​ This describes some of the emotions that ​umma​ and many women feel as they make the decision to start a family. They are told that they can have both — career and family — but the truth is that outdated labor practices and cultural pressures make this a challenging undertaking.

Umma​ has shared this story with me only recently. I knew she had a job before, but I had only ever pictured her as my ​umma​. In my memory, I see: ​Umma busily chopping away over the cutting board with stew simmering on the stove. Umma looking worried, watching over me with a cool towel in one hand, a thermometer in the other, as I lay in sick from a fever. Umma sitting in the middle row of the theater, clapping for me as I finish my violin recital.​ Hearing the story of how ​umma​ chose to leave her career in design felt bizarre: why would she give up her dreams for my brother? ​Umma​ had always told me to pursue my own dream, why had she given up on hers? What shocked me more was that ​umma​’s story was not unique; it echoed the stories of millions of working women around the world. This dilemma made me realize that despite appearances, sexism subtly pervades our world, testing the woman I care about the most – ​umma​.

When I looked further into this issue, I found, to my surprise, that while many countries have laws related to maternity leave to protect women’s jobs, the protection offered by law is very limited. In Korea, for example, women can take 90 days of maternity leave; however, only 60 days will be paid leave. Furthermore, the laws cannot prevent companies from subtly pressuring women to quit their job. ​Umma​’s close friend, for example, was abruptly transferred to a different office far from her home after her maternity leave. Since the commute was too difficult, ​umma’​ s friend had no choice but to leave the company. That’s not all. The stories of umma​ and her friend are representative of the gender-biased demands placed on women. Although women are now encouraged to pursue higher education and their own careers, there is still a cultural expectation, especially in East Asian countries, for women to be the primary homemaker and caretaker as well. A well-kept house and home-cooked meals are expected. Involvement in the children’s extracurricular activities, attendance at recitals, and even birthday party planning are also part of what is expected. For a woman to actively pursue her career and provide all that is expected of her as a primary caretaker, she really would have to be superhuman! This was the case with ​umma​. Although no one explicitly told her these things,umma​ described it as a silent, but understood expectation. Understandably, it was too much for her to handle all at once, and she selflessly chose to prioritize the family.

After hearing ​umma​’s story, I started wondering who was working to advance women’s workplace rights, and if there were any women that symbolized the movement. Surprisingly, I found one quickly, and despite being well over 75 years old, she continues to inspire women to pursue their career aspirations. Rosie the Riveter, a cultural icon born out of necessity to win a war, is still serving — albeit in a different “war.”

Rosie was invented during World War II in an effort to encourage household women to go work in factories to create weapons and war supplies. Rosie is portrayed wearing a red bandana and a dark blue collared shirt while flexing her arm muscles. Her famous slogan “We Can Do It!” is often emblazoned above her head in bold letters. Despite being a fictional character, Rosie, as a symbol of the female power, made an extraordinary contribution to gender equality. She inspired 6 million American women to join in the war cause, which increased the ratio of women in the workforce in the U. S. from 27 percent to 37 percent in just four years. The change Rosie inspired continued even after the war. In 1980, only 38 percent of the U.S. workforce were women, but by 2000, they were 46.8 percent of the U.S. workforce. Beyond employment statistics, Rosie has also changed people’s perception about which jobs are appropriate for women. When Rosie was first created, few jobs were considered appropriate for women; only jobs such as being an elementary school teacher, seamstress, or secretary were considered “feminine.” Not many universities admitted female students. It was truly a time of limited opportunity for half the population. Now women can be found in all careers and with every kind of advanced degree. Additionally, contributions by women across industries continue to advance our understanding of the world. Laws against discriminatory hiring practices and university admissions have made these milestones possible.

These changes have opened up many opportunities, but advancing one’s career remains as challenging as ever. While I am thankful that ​umma​ chose to leave her company and decided to take care of my brother and me, I wish that she didn’t have to choose one over the other. She was pushed to depart her role in the company by both outdated laws and cultural expectations. However, there should be more systematic support enabling women to have a choice that isn’t either-or. For example, there should be more societal support for men to take a larger part in childcare, more affordable daycare options, and better policies guiding women’s post-maternity leave career advancement.

During WWII, Rosie encouraged Americans to concentrate all efforts into winning the war. Now, I see Rosie encouraging women to pursue their interests even with difficult obstacles. Though many women were reluctant to join the workforce, Rosie was able to convince them to work in defense industries. She told them: “We can do it!” Now this statement should convince people that ​we​ can continue to fight gender inequality and provide more support for women as they navigate their careers, family life, or both.

As a young student inspired by Rosie, I want to live in a world where my friends and people I love can pursue any profession without being hindered by prejudices. I want to live in a world where the important women in my life have the same support that I have in pursuing my dreams. Rosie inspires me to work toward making the world a more gender-balanced place. If world leaders would more openly acknowledge unfair, systematic work practices and address those issues with concrete regulation, many women’s careers would benefit. Additionally, small, everyday efforts to challenge gender stereotypes, especially among young students, are equally important.​ L​ astly, I would like to see more female role models and their contributions acknowledged. The encouraging words of Rosie the Riveter still ring strongly. We ​can ​do it. While gender inequality in the workplace is decreasing, it still exists. By following Rosie’s message, we will be able to bring about a gender-balanced world, where ​umma​ could have had the best of both worlds — motherhood and designing.