Activating Mothers as a Civic Resource | Big Bold Cities

Activating Mothers as a Civic Resource

three colored squaresActivating Mothers as a Civic Resource


The Seoul Metropolitan Government wants to boost the volume and quality of citizen engagement, so civil servants are eager to find untapped reserves of social capital. Various program managers and stakeholders have found one such reserve in women who have chosen to leave their careers in order to raise their children. These ‘career-interrupted’ women have been identified as good candidates for boards and commissions; as volunteers in a Gender Equality Monitoring Group to flag the use of gender stereotypes on social media; as potential coding teachers, to help schools fulfill a commitment to begin a universal coding curriculum in fourth grade; and as active leaders in community-based energy and climate programs, such as energy self-reliant villages and cooperatives. “Our activists are mothers,” Songdaegol Energy Supermarket CEO Ms. Kim So Young said. “Motherhood is driving our movement.” This opportunistic, project-level approach to women’s engagement is complemented by institutional efforts to promote female civil servants, sensitize all civil servants on gender issues, reduce violence against women and advance gender-aware civic dialogue.

Democratic Challenge

"Development without democracy is improbable,” said Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. “Democracy without women is impossible." But there’s no simple fix for structural inequality. Gender norms are deeply embedded in law, policy, cultural practices and social relations. Women who challenge them often face intense public scrutiny and in some cases, are subject to violence. Women also have diverse identities, experiences and needs. Programs that tap into one particular group (like career-interrupted mothers) need to be part of a holistic approach of engaging and empowering women across sectors and backgrounds.   

How Did They Do It?

Civil servants under Mayor Park Won-soon’s administration have incentives to open up consultative processes and ensure that citizens are generating, deciding on and implementing policy to the greatest degree possible. (One of Park’s slogans is that ‘the citizen is mayor’). In looking for willing civic partners, a number of offices or initiatives have independently discovered that women, and particularly ‘career-interrupted’ women, make great community leaders and volunteers. In effect, they are leveraging acceptable gender norms—i.e. women as mothers and homemakers—in a way that brings women increasingly into decision-making at the local level. This can expand what’s acceptable and normative for women and bring to bear their concerns as women, not just mothers, on government policies.

Perhaps not coincidentally, women occupy key staff positions of the programs making this discovery. Examples include:

  • Supporting a teaching cooperative formed by stay-at-home mothers as part of the city’s community-building program. “This is not just killing their time, this is not passive participation, this is active participation,” Local Community Division Director Ms. Choi Soon-ok said. “This helps them rebuild their life and career. It’s something to consider when we provide support.”
  • Recruiting and training coding teachers to implement a national plan to incorporate coding curricula into elementary and middle-school education. A researcher at the Seoul Digital Foundation said that career re-entry can be difficult for women who left the workforce to raise children, but they can complete basic coding classes and be deployed to train elementary-age students.
  • Seoul’s flagship energy self-reliant village, in Sungdaegol, was started by Ms. Kim So Young. Ms. Kim began focusing her community activism on energy issues following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, and she said the local movement for environmental sustainability is driven by mothers who are particularly sensitive to concerns about their children’s future. The cooperative that Ms. Kim started runs an energy supermarket on which the local middle school sells solar energy and uses the profits to support student welfare. A successful local business anchored in the community, Ms. Kim hopes it will also help attract and train the next generation of volunteers and activists.

There are also top-down policy efforts around gender equity. Seoul Metropolitan Government has a Women and Families Policy Affairs Office which was established in 1989 and has focused on policies around parental leave, child care and fair employment, as well as the safety and accessibility of public spaces and services. In 2016, policymakers watched a mass feminist movement erupt after the killer in the notorious Gangnam murder case professed his hatred for women. The women’s policy office sought to archive the experiences and sentiments that women shared at spontaneous memorial sites, and it launched a task force to identify ways to prevent future violence. (According to one official, some nine out of 10 women report experiencing dating violence.) The Safe City for Women 3.0 initiative includes measures for women’s physical safety, like alarm buttons in public restrooms, as well as efforts to update the ‘software’ of cultural norms and values around gender. This includes a ‘Gender Equality Monitoring Group’ staffed by volunteers (often the ‘career-interrupted women’) who monitor the city’s communications output to ensure that the language being used is not reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Finally, the metro government looks inward to promote gender equity in the civil service. There are active efforts to give women preference in hiring and promotions, and city employees are surveyed to measure their gender sensitivity and receive customized training.

How Is It Going?

Korea has a long way to go to close its gender gap. According to the New America Foundation, “South Korea ranks a dismal 115th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, trailing the United States (28) and neighbors China (91) and Japan (105). South Korea also has the highest gender wage gap of OECD nations. Some have gone so far as to describe Seoul as a city where the technology of 2050 is juxtaposed with the customs of 1950.” 

But a new generation of civic and social activists, who cut their teeth during the candlelight revolution, are demanding reform on a number of fronts; in 2018, Korea’s #metoo movement has toppled high-profile figures and inspired mass protests. The metro government’s efforts to integrate gender equity into policy and culture have aligned with and often leveraged that energy.


Women’s political vs. social inclusion. In order to participate fully, women need to achieve formal political and legal rights, but also the social status and dignity that allows them to feel safe, welcome and respected in political and civic spaces. These two aspects of gender equity often do not progress at the same rate or even in the same direction. For example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, where women’s empowerment has been seemingly fast-tracked across the region through the use of gender quotas and public policies responding to key women’s priorities, the impactful shifts in behavior and power necessary for women’s actual equality in society have not followed. Despite women’s levels of political representation in Latin American countries, the region continues to have an abysmal women’s human rights record, with one of the highest levels of femicide and intimate partner violence in the world. 

Inclusion as an antidote to democratic recession. In an era where partisan polarization is rising and trust in institutions is falling, the increased participation of women in political life offers an antidote to both ills. Research shows that women’s leadership and conflict resolution styles embody democratic ideals and that women tend to work in a less hierarchical, more participatory and more collaborative way than male colleagues. As a result, women are more likely to work across party lines, even in highly partisan environments. Research also shows that women lawmakers have often been perceived as more honest, more sensitive to community concerns, more responsive to constituency needs, and more likely to see government as a tool to help serve underrepresented or minority groups. These qualities encourage confidence in democratic and representative institutions.

Innovation Point of Contact

Ms. Kim Yeon Ju
Gender Policy Advisor _ Deputy Director
SMG Women and Family Policy Affairs Office / Women's Policy Division / Gender Policy Team

Who Else Is Trying This

Missouri and Kansas, United States

The Women Foundation’s Appointments Project empowers women to serve on public boards and commissions so that appointees are representative of the communities they serve. The government of Kansas City, Missouri piloted the project in 2014 and has achieved gender parity on its boards and commissions. The Appointments Project now partners with 25 local governments and two state governments, and it announced in August 2018 that 90 women have been appointed through its pipeline. The Project educates and advises women on public service, maintains a database of women candidates for service, and advocates for best practices in application and appointment processes. It was built on recommendations from a study that identified the barriers causing women to be underrepresented. Read more


The Mother Child Education Programme (MOCEP) demonstrates the hidden power of mothers to be social and economic assets to their communities. In Turkey, 90 percent of children under six are cared for full-time by their mothers and do not attend pre-school. Increasing evidence shows that ages six and younger is an instrumental growth period for children, impacting their cognitive abilities for the rest of their lives. Mocep brings together 20 to 25 mothers to support each other and talk about important parenting topics. During the group discussions, a facilitator shares activities and worksheets to help teach children at home before they begin formal education. The mothers are seen not as passive recipients but as co-producers in developing the learning resources further. The program’s small seed investment (USD $15 per family) has a multiplier effect, as participating mothers diffuse their knowledge and resources throughout their family and social networks. After 20 years, children whose mothers completed the program appear to function at a more advanced academic and social level than their peers, and are more likely to go to university. This program has been fully adopted by the Turkish government and has spread to 13 countries. Read more 

San Antonio, Texas, United States

City Manager Sheryl Sculley has had the benefit of multiple mentors throughout her professional life, but she struggled to find women in executive positions whom she could look up to. To address this disparity and to help other women, she created a women’s mentoring program within the city that pairs women in executive positions with junior staff members to provide advice and professional development over the course of a year. To date, 94 mentees have completed the program and Ms. Sculley herself has mentored three junior civil servants. In addition to encouraging female advancement in government, the program also fosters a culture of mentorship in the city’s government. Read more