IN LATE September, the South Korean arm of IBM, an American computing multinational, put out an advertisement soliciting applicants for a round of job vacancies. The text was standard fare in every aspect except one: sexual minorities—gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people—were to be given “extra points” in the screening process, according to Asia Kyeongjae, a South Korean financial newspaper.
Such a policy might raise eyebrows in many places. But South Korea is a country where, in a poll by the Pew Research Center just four years ago, 77% of people agreed that “homosexuality should be rejected”. The combination of the country’s Confucianism (which holds marriage and childbirth as an obligation) and the power of its conservative Protestant lobby have long made South Korea a hard place to be gay.
Though rainbow flags fly outside the gay bars of the Nakwon district of downtown Seoul, participants in Gay Pride rallies have been known to wear masks to avoid identification. It is still the norm for gays and lesbians to lead double lives, revealing their true feelings only to their closest friends. Kim So-dam, a human-rights campaigner, says most companies “don’t want to hire them”.
Hong Seok-cheon, an actor and the first openly gay South Korean celebrity, often visits universities, hoping to convince students who “will be bosses ten or 20 years from now” to give gay people a chance in the workplace. He believes that although mainstream society still does not accept homosexuality, younger people are different.
Mr Hong would know this better than most. After coming out in 2000, he could not get work for several years. He opened a restaurant in 2003, but many of the people who visited it merely wanted to shout abuse at him. Today though, he owns nine restaurants, which are always full, and he has once again become a fixture on Korean television.
In 2010 one of the most popular drama serials on South Korean television was “Life is Beautiful”, which included a same-sex love story played by two male leads. Five years ago the making of such a programme would have been unthinkable, but now, according to Mr Hong, people are at last beginning to realise that gays are “not aliens”.
IBM Korea thus looked to be at the cutting edge of South Korean social change. However, the firm is now backtracking and has changed the wording of its original advertisement. Public-relations staff say there was a misunderstanding and that the firm simply wants to offer equal opportunities to all.
Deliberately targeting gay and lesbian candidates could turn out to be good business, though. Foreign multinationals in South Korea have learned to exploit large local firms’ prejudices by seeking to hire talented women who would otherwise struggle to find decent jobs. Now that this “gender arbitrage” gap is narrowing, sexual minorities could be next on the list. If IBM is trying to signal that it is South Korea’s most gay-friendly employer, it may find itself with a large pool of grateful applicants.