Ambassador Harris at the International Women’s Day Reception

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Harry Harris
U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
International Women’s Day Reception
Chief of Mission Residence
March 8, 2019

Good evening everyone. Bruni and I are thrilled to be able to host you here at the Habib House tonight. And I’d especially like to thank and recognize the Vice Minister of Gender Equality and Family, Kim Hee-kyung, Science and Technology Advisor to the President, Dr. Lee Kong-joo, Educators, Business Leaders, Advocates, and Excellencies for making the time to join us this evening.

Now, I recognize that I’m both male and an American, so some may think that I’m not the best person to talk about international women’s empowerment in Korea…And you’d be right.

But, women’s empowerment is a significant issue that impacts us all, so I personally think that more men should be talking about it and not just on celebratory occasions like today, but every day. Moreover, it’s a major foreign policy priority for the U.S. government, and as U.S. Ambassador, it’s my job to spark and continue thoughtful conversations about it. At a recent conference in Washington, I heard Ivanka Trump say that the most underdeveloped, resource in the developing world, is women. I agree with her as I’m sure most of you do as well. I would add that even in the developed world, there’s work to be done. So I’m really honored to have you all join us here tonight.

When I was thinking about these remarks, I was reminded of all of the strides women have made the world over. And right now, in this room, we’re surrounded by true trailblazers– women who’ve distinguished themselves in their chosen careers—and have advanced the cause of fair and equal representation, and, quite frankly, talent. All of you here today have competed and persevered for a place at the table, and once at the table, you’ve projected your voice, moved the chairs around, and changed long-held, incorrect views governing hierarchy and “place” to the betterment of your organizations, and your country. Yet there’s still progress to be made; opportunities for both of our nations to embrace.

We all know, that the best of any group is better than the best of a subgroup of that group. According to the World Bank, in the United States, women make up 45 percent of the labor force, but account for only 29 percent of executive and senior-level managers of S&P 500 companies. This is not a distinction that we want. Here in Korea, women occupy 41 percent of the workforce but only about 3 percent of executive positions, even though there’s an abundance of talented, highly-educated Korean women. The gender earnings gap in Korea is the highest among the OECD countries. That isn’t a distinction that Korea should want either.

You know better than me that the globally interconnected world we live in is becoming more complicated every day, with complex challenges behind every door. Echo chambers won’t solve these challenges. That’s why women’s empowerment can’t be seen as a “nice to do” or an “add on” to business as usual.

So it begs the question: how do we bridge the gap?

One answer is to first have the right laws and then enforce them. There are structural and institutional barriers that keep women from competing in the same playing fields as men. If adequate legal protections are in place, our daughters and granddaughters will have equal access to programs, opportunities, and resources that help them develop the grit, resilience, and networks they need to be successful later on in life.

As Ivanka Trump, herself, has said, “Just think how much better our world will be if ALL OF US, men and WOMEN, are empowered to dream big, aim high, and work together towards a more just and prosperous future.”

Earlier this year, President Trump signed The Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment (WEEE) Act into law. This law aims to provide support for women-led ventures in developing countries to help them overcome gender-related barriers to economic growth, such as gender-based violence and limited access to education and healthcare. We look forward to working with the Republic of Korea on this and other initiatives to empower women all over the world. By helping others, we hope to learn from it as well.

It’s also incumbent upon us all to remove the unconscious biases that limit the opportunities for women to maximize their potential – especially in a country that has as many dynamic, modern, and smart women and men as does Korea.

Our societies, whether in the United States, the Republic of Korea, or anywhere around the world, are stronger when we have gender equality. When we have gender inclusion, it means our ideas are more diverse, our strengths are multiplied, and our weaknesses and biases are reduced. It’ll also help our economies grow at a faster pace. It means that our daughters and our sons would have access to new opportunities and that the next generation would be better off than our current generation.

Another way to bridge the gender gap is to recognize and replicate the work key organizations are doing to champion women’s empowerment. Tonight we organized a small expo in the room behind me to highlight some of these organizations here in Korea.

So please be sure to visit the room during the reception where you can learn more about WISET, or Women in Science Engineering and Technology, which is helping attract and retain talented women in the scientific workforce. And the Korean NGO, “Sports.Connected!” which is doing some really great work to encourage equal-access to sports for girls in schools. We’re also really pleased that the Sunflower Center, and the Korean Female Lawyers Association are with us tonight. Together they are contributing to preventing gender-based violence and assisting victims. They’re also working to reform and improve the legal framework in these areas.

And last but not least, we’re grateful that representatives from Lotte Group could join us tonight to explain how offering paid maternity and paternity leave makes good business sense for them and the families who work for them.

We’re honored to highlight the work of each of these organizations and are inspired by their tenacity and dedication.

Now finally, my last suggestion on how to bridge the gap in gender equality involves each of you as individuals. You are the leaders today who will pave the way for the next generation. The future rights and opportunities of your sons and daughters will be determined by your decisions to be agents-of-change in your own way today. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “you must do the things you think you cannot do,” and no matter how small a gesture you make, I promise you, it will count.

So in closing, I invite each of you to please join me in rising to the challenge of this year’s theme for International Women’s Day to achieve “Balance for Better.” It’s the right thing to do… and it’s what will make the world a better place.

Thanks again for coming and I look forward to speaking more with all of you during the reception.