SEOUL (Reuters) - Ahn Ji-sun was looking forward to going back to work after she had her second child. But she had no one to babysit the kids.
Guilt made her stay home and give up a flourishing career as an event supervisor in Seoul. Three years later, the 38-year-old is still torn between the demands of home and unfulfilled ambition, and may have to switch careers to find a suitable job.
"If there had been some place where my children could have been taken care of ... I would still be working," she said.
A shortage of dependable childcare is derailing the careers of hundreds of thousands of women in South Korea, where management ranks are dominated by men and a patriarchal society idealizes stay-at-home moms.
The low rate of female participation in the workforce - just 56 percent of working-age women as of 2013 - is an increasingly urgent problem in the world's fastest-aging developed country, where working-age population is set to decline from next year.
Government data as of April last year shows 22.4 percent of all married women aged 15 to 54 in South Korea quit their jobs due to marriage, childbirth or childcare.
"We have succeeded in recruiting women to the workforce, but retaining them is difficult," Kim Hee-jung, minister of family and gender equality, said in an interview.
Lower wages give women less incentive to join or return to the workforce. Women in South Korea earned only 65 percent of what men did in 2012, a gap that has been nearly unchanged since the mid-1990s and is the widest among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development group of wealthy countries.
The government has been urging Korea Inc, dominated by family-run conglomerates, to get mothers back into the workforce, but few companies are willing to take the time or money to employ women with career gaps, Kim said.
"We need for them to realize that keeping women in the workplace is investing in our future," she said.
The gender equality ministry has sought to strengthen existing policies, such as increasing the number of childcare helpers provided at a low cost by the government as well as centers to mentor mothers who wish to go back to work.
Still, South Korea languishes at number 117 out of 142 countries in the latest WEF Global Gender Gap index, much below Asian neighbors China and Japan.
President Park Geun-hye, northeast Asia's first female head of state, said last month the government would set up a 50 billion won ($46 million) venture fund for future female business leaders, although some observers have criticized her for not doing more to champion opportunities for women.
The biggest hurdle for career mothers looking to scale the corporate ladder appears to be unreliable childcare.
A daycare center worker was caught on camera earlier this month knocking a toddler to the floor, spurring calls for closer monitoring of schools and childcare facilities.
Some parents have kept their children at home as subsequent footage of more incidents of daycare abuse emerged.
Waiting lists of more than a year plague state-run centers that are cheaper and better maintained than private ones, with official data in September showing as many as 98,000 children were in line for a place in government centers that account for 5 percent of the country's daycare facilities.
Kim Young-ock, a research fellow at the Korean Women's Development Institute, said increased government spending on childcare has yielded little, with a work culture that often extends beyond regular hours.
"Overtime work abounds and there are company dinners ... there is no understanding if your child is sick," she said.
Work intrusions continue to interfere with family life for women. A South Korean maker of steam-cleaning products is among the few companies in Seoul trying to cut them some slack.
At Haan Corp, employees are forbidden from working overtime on Wednesdays, a policy to compel staff in a notoriously workaholic country to spend more time with their families.
Employees are encouraged to work flexible hours, and mothers returning after childbirth qualify for an above-average rating at work, helping them catch up with their male counterparts.
"Our company tries to support its working parents so that they can work outside the office if needed and avoid being blamed for poor performance," said founder Romi Haan.
Haan started the company in 1999 when she was a housewife and mother. While it employs just 90 people in South Korea, 23 of them women, she said there is still enough lead time with pregnancies to allow for planning around maternity leaves.
"Women should also show they are willing to work and not leave their jobs," said the 51-year-old entrepreneur.
"They should make the effort to show that their work quality is still improving after marriage and after childbirth."
($1 = 1,080.7000 won)
Editing by Tony Munroe and Tony Tharakan