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[WISET News] Women as “Wings of Science” Female Scientists entering Politics
2017.09.22Hit 309

Just 20 years ago, the presence of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) was very minimal. Women scientists were rarely seen in research institutes, science and engineering departments at colleges and industrial sites. However, the story is quite different these days; it is said that more female students apply for science and engineering field, and events in science and engineering areas become more organized and more congested when dealing with female engineers and scientists.
There are more female scientists than male scientists in the national assembly. Then, when did this trend start to take place? “Women as “wings of Science” series will deal with the history of Korea’s female science & engineering field in various themes. Firstly, we will deep dive into the female scientists who became ministers, lawmakers and Cheongwadae - known as Blue House - advisors. - Editor



The season of politics is in its full swing. The long winter continued without a stop, but soon spring came with the blooming trees. The presidential election which was evident only in cold winter has gone, and we came towards “the election of roses” with the election being held in spring. So, the question: when did the female scientists who stayed only at their desks in the schools and labs go in the round of politics?
In the case of Germany, Angela Merkel, a physicist from East Germany, became a politician when she was just in her 30s. She has been throned the Prime Minister for 12 years since 2005. Merkel is indeed known as one of the most influential politicians in the world, but this is just one of a very few exceptional cases.

Former President PARK, Geun-hye, who went to Electronic Engineering Department in Sogang University, was entitled by many as the “first female president and the first president from the engineering field” when she got elected. However, it is quite hard to agree since she did not have any sought career as an engineering scholar or an engineer and did not pursue any activities relevant to science as a politician or president.
It was 1990s when the Korean scientists and engineers formed communities on their own, but it was only after 2000s when they really got engaged in such activities. Before that time, it was quite difficult to see women in the science technology field, not to mention about the female scientists and engineers that were engaged in administrators or politicians.

Minister KIM, Myung-ja of Ministry of Environment Becomes the Longest-Lived Minister in KIM, Daejung’s Government

The first female scientist that took the role of minister was KIM, Myung-ja, the current President of the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies. A chemist and a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University back then, President KIM was surprisingly chosen by President KIM, Dae-jung for the minister seat at the Ministry of Environment in 1999. Hence, she has been the longest-lived minister for 3 years and 8 months until President KIM’s tenure was over. Due to her reasonable decision making and thorough, composed working style, which is namely the trait of a scientist, Ministry of Environment topped the rank for the government divisions’ evaluation. It was known that President KIM earned quite much confidence from the President.
In ROH, Moo-hyun’s government, there was no female scientist that was appointed to the government office seats. During Lee Myung-bak’s term, two female scientists – YOO, Young-sook and BAEK, Hee-young – entered the government office. In June 2011, when Dr. YOO, Young-sook was working as Deputy Research Chairperson in KIST, the LEE, Myung-bak government appointed her as the Minister of Environment. Her proven track record in research and administrative experiences at KIST, where there was only a few female researchers, were highly acknowledged. During her 1 year and 8 months of tenure, Dr. YOO handled the U.S. Army’s Agent Orange case and Gumi’s hydrofluoric acid case very well. She also hosted OECD Environment Ministerial Summit in Seoul. After she finished her tenure as the minister, Dr. YOO came back to KIST where she was engaged in and resumed her career to conduct researches and lectures in relevant to international organizations’ climate change issue.
Former Minister BAEK, Hee-young was serving her role as a professor at the Department of Food and Nutrition at Seoul National University, and she entered the office in October 2009 as the Minister of Gender Equality and Family. Even before she took the office, BAEK was an activist in female society with her past roles as the President of The Korean Home Economics Association, Representative of Healthy Family Organization and a member at Committee for Gender Equality in Teacher Appointment at Seoul National University. After her two-year tenure at the office, she took the President role at Korea Federation of Women’s Science & Technology Associations. Hence then, she is serving diverse roles in science & technology field such as the vice president at the Korean Federation of Science & Technology Societies and Chairperson at Center for Gendered Innovations in Science and Technology Researches.
Coming towards the debut of PARK, Geun-hye government, many previously assumed that there would be higher portion of female ministers; however, there were not as many. Aside from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family where the ministers are mostly women, there were only two female ministers in seat – YOON, Jin-sook of Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and CHO, Yoon-sun of Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The only female minister from science and technology field was the current Minister of Gender Equality and Family. Minister KANG, Eun-hee has a Masters in computer engineering; she was once a high school teacher but entered the IT field by setting up a venture. She served as the President for Korea IT Business Women’s Association, and became a lawmaker as a proportional representation through the Saenuri Party’s public nomination in the 19th National Assembly. Being appointed as the Minister of Gender Equality and Family in January 2016, she did not run for the 20th National Assembly.


Former Minister of Environment KIM, Myung-ja ⓒ The Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies homepage

Three Female Scientists – PARK, Young-ah, BAE, Eun-hee and KIM, Jin-ae- in the 18th National Assembly

Dr. KIM, Myung-ja is the first female scientist that served as the minister and the lawmaker. After she finished her tenure as the Minister of Environment during KIM, Dae-jung government, Dr. KIM became one of the early-called proportional representation candidates by the ruling party, Yeollin Uri Party in 17th general election. That a female scientist was appointed as the proportional representation was a phenomenal issue, as it was not a rule to give half of the representations to the women unlike now.
In the 18th National Assembly, the number of femal lawmakers with background in science increased to three – Lawmakers PARK, Young-ah, BAE, Eun-hee and KIM, Jin-ae. Former Lawmaker PARK, Young-ae was a physicist who worked as a professor at Myongji University; she was then publicly nominated by the Saenuri Party in Songpa Gap area and won the seat. During four years of the National Assembly, she was engaged in Education, Science and Technology Committee, giving huge influence in the lawmaking of science & technology related regulations and policy. She failed to get public nomination in the 19th National Assembly, and she worked as the 7th President of KISTEP until very recently.

Former Lawmaker BAE, Eun-hee is a doctor with expertise in microbe; she was a venture company CEO and was appointed by the Saenuri Party as a proportional representation lawmaker. Dr. BAE worked as a member at the Education, Science and Technology Committee and Knowledge Economy Committee to activate the small-medium sized companies and venture companies. After she wrapped up her tenure, she was actively engaged in various works as a President of Korea Biotechnology Industry Organization. However, sadly, she passed away in 2014 due to illness.
Former lawmaker KIM, Jin-ae is an architect who earned her PhD in Urban Planning at MIT. While managing an organization called Seoul Forum, she was engaged in various city planning projects. Doctor Kim was even nominated as the only Korean in Time’s “100 Next Generation”. She ran for the candidacy in 17th general election in Yongsan area, but failed. In the next national assembly, she failed again as a proportional representation candidate in Minju Party. But, the proportional representation lawmaker of just the previous turn resigned due to stock-in-trade manipulation scandal, so she became the lawmaker in November 2009. While working as a member at the Land Infrastructure and Transport Committee, she pointed out to the problems of Four Major River project.
 In 19th National Assembly, a total 9 female lawmakers from science and technology field won the candidacy – KANG, Eun-hee, KWON, Eun-hee, MIN, Byung-jot, PARK, In-sook, SHIN, Kyung-lim, SHIN, Eui-jin, KIM, Sang-hee, KIM, Mee-hee and MOON, Jeong-lim. However, many were from the medical field, and a lot were just science and technology field graduates. Some have not even sought their career in the relevant fields, so it is hard to say that all 9 of them are female scientists or engineers.

The key female scientist and lawmaker in the 19th National Assembly is Dr. MIN, Byung-joo. A physicist herself, she was a research committee member at Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute. She then was selected as the first proportional representation candidate by Saenuri Party, surprising everyone. Before she became a lawmaker, she had served as a president at The Association of Korean Woman Scientists and Engineers with established reputation in female scientific community. However, she failed to run the candidacy in the general elections in 2016 (20th), at the in-party race, which made her feel the high barrier of local essence.

Lawmaker PARK, In-sook was a professor for Pediatrics Major at the University Of Ulsan College Of Medicine. She became a lawmaker for Songpa – gap area since 19th National Assembly and took the seat for two consecutive times until 20th National Assembly. She is mainly working at Health, Welfare Committee, but she has huge interest in the science and technology sector as well.
Former lawmaker KWON, Eun-hee (19th National Assembly, Daegu Bukgu-gap, Saenuri Party) holds her masters in computer engineering; she had active engagement in IT with her past career in IT conglomerate and SME business. Former Lawmaker SHIN, Kyung-lim (19th National Assembly at Saenuri Party, proportional representation) is a PhD in nursing science who was a chairman at Korean Nurses Association.
Aside from these, 19th National Assembly lawmakers included the following people: SHIN, Eui-jin (proportional representation from the Saenuri Party) who is mostly known as the doctor for children suffering from rapes; KIM, Sang-hee (Minju Party, Bucheon Sosa), a pharmacist who became three-times elected until 20th National Assembly; KIM, Mee-hee, a pharmacist who was elected in Jungwon, Seongnam (Unified Progressive Party who lost her seat as the party disbanded due to the decision of the constitutional court in 2014); MOON, Jung-lim who was a PhD in medicine and a spokesperson for Liberty Forward Party (proportional representation, Liberty Forward Party was integrated to Saenuri Party in 2012).

Three parties chose female scientists for No.1 proportional representation in the 20th National Assembly         

In the 20th General Elections held in 2016, each party appointed “female scientist” for the first seat of the proportional representation, implying the advent of female scientists’ era. Saenuri Party chose IT specialist SONG, Hee-kyung, who was Managing Director at KT, The Minjoo Party picked mathematician PARK, Kyung-mi, who was a professor at Hongik University, and the People’s Party chose SHIN, Yong-hyun who was the President of Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science, all for the No. 1 proportional representation, the definite elect and the representative figure.

Lawmaker SONG, Hee-kyung majored in computer science, and she sought her career as an IT specialist at companies. With the public’s increasing interest in Artificial Intelligence after last year’s LEE, Sedol and AlphaGo’s Go match, Saenuri Party quickly recruited Song. After becoming a lawmaker, Song is putting many efforts in IT industry’s development and job creation in preparation for the fourth industrial revolution.
Lawmaker PARK, Kyung-mi was a professor at the Mathematics major in Hongik University; she was a popular mathematician who delivered many lectures to help the public approach to Mathematics in easy manner and wrote many books. After entering the National Assembly, she has been handling many education related issues at Education, Culture, Sports, and Tourism Committee, leading the spokesperson role.
Lawmaker SHIN, Yong-Hyun, PhD in Physics, started her career as a researcher at Daedeok Science Town where she climbed to the research chairman. She was a Chairman for the Association of Korean Woman Scientists & Engineers and participated in the female scientists’ aiding business like WISET from the initial stage. In the National Assembly, she is an active member at Science, ICT, Future Planning, Broadcasting, and Communications Committee, while taking key role like the supreme council of People’s party and women’s committee.
Another key celebrity among the female scientists in the 20th National Assembly is MOON, Mi-ok. In her 40s, Moon is a PhD in Physics, and worked as a policy director at WISET. She was recruited by former Representative MOON, Jae-in and entered the 20th National Assembly. Lawmaker MOON is taking the role of Science, ICT, Future Planning, Broadcasting, and Communications Committee member and the Minjoo Party’s Special Science & ICT committee chairman. Knowing the conditions in Science &IT, lawmaker Moon pointed out to the students & researchers’ treatment and government’s R&D cost distortion issues and came up with proper measures.
In the 20th National Assembly, there are other female scientists that were fore-mentioned in the 19th National Assembly: Lawmakers PARK, In-sook and KIM, Sang-hee, KIM, Hyun-ah (Liberty Korea Party’s proportional representation, urban engineering, Construction Economy Research Institute of Korea committee member), KIM, Soon-rye (Liberty Korea Party’s proportional representation, Pharmacology, former Korean Pharmaceutical Association Female Pharmacist Chairman), KIM, Seung-hee (Liberty Korea Party’s proportional representation, Chemistry, Former Minister of Food and Drug Safety) and HAN, Jung-ae (The Minjoo Party Seoul Gangseo Byung, environment engineering).


ⓒ Cheongwadae Homepage

History of Cheongwadae Advisors in Science & Technology

There are female scientists who assisted the President at near hand as an advisor. ROH, Moo-hyun’s government was the first office where the science & technology related advisor was first created in the secretariat. In the presidential candidate debate, President ROH, Moo-hyun made a commitment that he will establish IT and Science & Technology chief secretary in Cheongwadae, and kept his promise after he took the presidency by introducing ICT secretary.

There were three ICT secretaries in ROH’s government. Except for KIM, Tae-yoo, Seoul National University Professor, who was a secretary at an early stage, two of them were female scientists: PARK, Ki-young (Biology, Sunchon National University Professor) and KIM, Sun-hwa (Metal Engineering, Soonchunhyang University Engineering College Dean). Professor PARK, Ki-young was a member at Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice Science & Technology Committee and partook in policy advisory committee. She was Roh’s government’s key person who was chosen as a member in the presidential transition team after ROH got elected. After appointed as the Advisor to the President for Information, Science and Technology, she put many efforts in establishing “Science & Technology centric society”.
In ROH’s government, the status of science and technology was elevated ever high, as the Science and Technology Minister was promoted to vice Prime Minister and the R&D budget of the government was allocated in the Science and Technology Ministry. However, with the HWANG, Woo-seok scandal in 2005, the confidence about the scientists and engineers collapsed, and Secretary PARK, Ki-young took the responsibility and resigned in early 2006. After returning to school, she focused in the researches. Up until now, she is actively engaged in policy making of science and technology through her activities in the parties and NGOs like Feel Science.

Secretary KIM, Sun-hwa, who followed Professor PARK, Ki-young, was a metal engineer and a professor at college of engineering; she was not a very familiar figure in the science & technology field. The relevant field was not of much focus since Roh’s government was filled with other issues in the later tenure, so the ICT secretary’s role was not that conspicuous. Secretary KIM, Sun-hwa is focusing in the party activities, having served Minju Party’s Chungnam Asan Committee Chair and Chungnam Governor AHN, Hee-jeong’s Special Policy Secretary.

LEE, Myung-bak government integrated the science & technology division with education, and Advisor to the President for Information, Science and Technology position was removed. However, with the voices being raised that the government was neglecting the science and technology and that there was no science & technology control tower, the government established ministerial level national science & technology council and newly introduced ICT & Future Planning team in the secretary’s office at Cheongwadae.

YU, Myeong-hee (KIST Chief Researcher, Microbiology) was appointed as the Planner of Future Strategy Planning Office in 2010 when the office was first instituted. Dr YU was the representative female scientist who won the L'Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 1990s for unlocking the structure and folding of protein. She also undertook the 21st Century New Frontier Business Chair, where she accumulated experiences in science administration. During her two-year career in the Cheongwadae, she planned out the blue print for the national science policy and future business opportunities. After then, she returned to KIST and continued her researcher career. Dr. YU was recently elected as the next President of the Korea Federation of Women’s Science & Technology Association (From 2018) where she is expected to showcase her leadership in the female science world.
In PARK, Geun-hye’s government, Presidential Secretary for Future Strategy was newly instituted at Cheongwadae where the chief actively participated in the Senior Secretary Meetings, hinting at bigger roles of the relevant position. However, only men were elected in the position for three times straight, and no women came to the seat since then.

Program for Future Female Politicians Needed

Compared to other advanced OECD countries, the women’s interest and awareness in politics is quite high, but the portion of female politicians or administrators is still relatively low. The female scientists pose fresh image to the public when compared to the existing politics due to their rationales and expertise. For this reason, there is an increasing demand for female scientists in the politics arena during the elections and reshuffle period.
However, it is quite doubtful whether these female scientists are serving their roles right when they become lawmakers or ministers. Politics is not about dealing with academic theories or research fruits; those who handle the social conflicts, future vision and interaction with the public well will be acknowledged. There are some cases where the female scientists had to give up their dreams or failed to meet others’ expectations as they lack experiences in politics and administration.
For that reason, there is some voice that there should be a program where these female scientists could cultivate such skills before they go into the politics arena. There should be some educational programs for the future politicians or administrations by letting them partake in the government committee, academia, NGOs where they will obtain learning in science & technology and society and interaction with the public. 
The role of senior female scientists who are experienced lawmakers and ministers is as important. It is critical that they hand down their key learnings so that the juniors would not repeat the same failures. In this perspective, the female scientists who have experienced politics coming back to the science & technology field and exercising upgraded activities seem very appropriate.


KIM, Hak-jin/ Research Fellow at WISET