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SEOUL (Reuters) - If you are thirty-plus and a woman with a masters degree in South Korea, you may need the help of a matchmaker to find love -- and your worried mother may even end up doing the legwork for you.
As women in this rich Asian country have become better educated, with five times as many now getting advanced degrees as in 1995, they have also become more choosy and are less likely to settle for the role of meek spouse traditionally expected of Korean women.
"I heard if you are a female with master's degree, it is much harder to arrange a meeting than if you have a bachelors degree because of an unfavorable perception toward 'too smart women' here," said Lee, 24, a college senior in Seoul who wished to be known only by her last name.
The age at which Korean women are getting hitched has risen by an average 4.1 years over the past 20 years to 28.9 years, according to Statistics Korea, and that has created plenty of worried mothers getting things rolling for their daughters.
"My daughter is in her early 30's, an age considered late for marriage here", said a woman in her mid 50s who wished to be identified only by her surname Ahn and who took her daughter to one of the many match-making agencies in Seoul.
"I was worried that if she does not find her match this year, it will be much more difficult to marry in the coming years, so I went to the firm with her and made her join."
At DUO, a matchmaking firm, its 26,000 members can choose between five different membership programs with fees from 1.08 million won ($971) to 8.8 million won.
In a bid to attract clients, the site displays the average annual income of its male and female customers, as well as statistics on their professional standing.
"In a privately set up blind date, you cannot be entirely sure of how much of personal information given to you is accurate," said DUO spokesman Yon Jun.
Critics say the industry prioritizes income, status and materialism. Local wags have coined the phrase "employage" to sum up employment and marriage.
"If your father works in the financial industry or is a high-ranking administrator, you will find your match with similar backgrounds through a matchmaking firm, starting a perfect marriage on the back of parental support," said comedian Choi Hyo-jong, a presenter on a local satirical show called "the Wart's Kindergarten".
Demand appears to only be rising.
Overall, the industry is estimated to be worth 100 billion won ($88.79 million), according to local newspaper Asia Business Daily. This compares to estimates of around 50 billion won in 2005, media said.
Experts said anxiety in tough economic times appeared to be playing a part.
"With increasing uncertainty and anxiety about the future weighing on people, the concept of marriage has become a tool to maintain one's social status," said anthropology professor Kim Hyun-mee at Yonsei University in Seoul. ($1 = 1126.2750 Korean won)
Editing by David Chance and Elaine Lies