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Yorum Beekman: ‘I didn’t want to write about people, I wanted to give them a voice’

As a woman, working in Japan and Korea can be pretty tough, Yorum Beekman discovered. It prompted her to pursue a PhD on the subject: ‘I thought: hey, that’s interesting!’

Yorum Beekman

Yorum studied Korean Language and Culture, ‘before the bachelor-master system’, and after graduating went to work at the Dutch embassy in South Korea. ‘There I dealt with policymakers and often visited companies. I eventually ended up in Japan and discovered first-hand how difficult it was as a woman, much less a foreign woman, to find suitable work in the business world.’

‘Diversity and inclusion in the workplace are still in their infancy in Japan and Korea. There are many developments in both countries, but there’s also stagnation. Policy and practice don’t always align with what women want,’ she says. Combined with her own experiences, it led to a PhD proposal on gender dimensions in career advancement. ‘There’s a lot written about it on macro level, but not at micro level – and numbers say nothing about women’s perceptions, that’s very much missing in the literature.’ So she interviewed 39 Japanese and 24 Korean women about their experiences in the labour market. ‘I didn’t want to just write about people, I wanted to give them a voice. What do these women themselves think about their situation, how do they view their careers?’

Korean pioneers and Japanese ‘mommy tracks’

‘Korean women leaders are pioneers but had to mould themselves into male managers. As a result, there are almost no female role models, only women doing what the men before them did. In Japan, they’ve been paying attention to diversity policies for some time, but many work-life balance issues are still labelled as women’s issues. For instance, young mothers who take a long time off are quickly labelled as being in the mommy track.’ 

‘If women then don’t take advantage of long-term maternity leave or turn down a promotion, it’s easy to think “see, they don’t want to”, but that’s very stigmatising and above all polarising. You must ask yourself what she saw in that one moment, why she chose something. Usually, it’s not a free choice at all, but a compromise.’

‘Your dissertation is truly your own brain child’

As an external PhD Candidate, Yorum’s dependent on external funding, but two grants allowed her to do fieldwork for over a year and a half. ‘It was difficult to find an starting point. Companies weren’t eager to participate or left the interview selection to male managers,’ she explains. Fortunately, she already had connections in the business world and ‘it definitely helps that you’re a bit bolder than when you’re fresh graduate.’

Early next year, Yorum hopes to finish her dissertation. She looks back on a tough process. ‘Doing a PhD’s so much work and you have to manage your own work-life balance. I’m constantly working on it.’ This was evident when she had a nasty fall in the Tokyo underground: ‘Then you’ve got to keep going and hobble on crutches with your interpreter from company to company, they saw me coming!'

Still, she considers doing a PhD mainly as a beautiful thing. ‘If you have a dream to do a PhD, I’d recommend it to anyone, because your dissertation is truly your brainchild after all. You can publish something you would’ve liked to have read when you were studying yourself. As a young academic, you’re never perfect, but you grow and become aware of your own abilities. You find out how you look at others and how much you need others, thankfully I had a lot of support from my husband.’

Art connects people in the world

For her PhD, she returned to Leiden. ‘That felt like coming home,’ she acknowledges, because for most of her adult life so far, Yorum had lived abroad. Besides Korea and Japan, she also lived in Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘That mix of experiences’ made me who I am, so I feel like a true global citizen.’ 

Despite having travelled all over the world, there’s one constant in her life: her passion for art. ‘I was an artist in Japan for a while when I couldn’t find a job and have held four visual arts exhibitions. Art brings people together and it’s beautiful to see what people from around the world have in common. How small the world actually is.’ It’s one of the reasons why she dislikes arbitrary boundaries: ‘Everything’s connected and especially in this age, just look at Netflix and social media!’

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