05 October 2014
modern japanese

Hope and promise of Japan's "womenomics"

Too many Asians do not have a chance to contribute to society or the economy. Perhaps the most egregious case is that of Japanese women.

Too many Asians do not have a chance to contribute to society or the economy. Perhaps the most egregious case is that of Japanese women.

Discrimination takes many forms in Asia, as it does everywhere, and is awfully difficult to eradicate. In Japan, for example, you will find many men who are convinced that Japanese women do not want to work, that they prefer a life at home, going to coffee shops with their girlfriends and package tours to Europe.

“Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to higher Japanese female employment is Japanese society itself”, argues Goldman Sachs’ Kathy Matsui. She reports that according to a Japan Cabinet Office survey, 52% of the Japanese people believe that women should stay at home and men should work, an increase of 10% increase from 2009. “Japan’s corporate culture … is still one of pinstripes and button-downs”, said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

With Japan’s elderly ratio expected to increase from 25% to 40% and population shrinking by 30% to 87 million by the year 2060, Japan needs to make use of all its resources. At the moment, only 63% of working age women have a job, compared with 81% of men. As Prime Minister Abe said “the female labor force in Japan is the most under-utilized resource”.

The cost of Japan’s gender mindset is enormous. Matsui estimates that if Japan could close the enormous employment gap between men and women, Japan’s GDP could be 13% higher. And the effect could even be greater.

Japanese women are on average better educated than Japanese men, according to government statistics. OECD research has also found that Japanese women have the highest levels of literacy and numeracy for women in all advanced countries. And Japanese women have the world’s highest life expectancy at 87 years, which means they could have a lot to contribute. For example, distinguished Japanese diplomat and academic Sadako Ogata only retired from her position as President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency at the ripe age of 84!

But it is not just a question of the relatively low numbers of Japanese women working. Very few Japanese women occupy leadership positions in business or government, large gender pay gaps persist, the tax system discourages women from working, and companies are not forced to be transparent regarding gender employment issues. Japan has a lower percentage of female parliamentarians than Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Libya!

The crux of the problem often occurs around childbirth, after which around 60% of Japanese women stop working for a decade or more, compared with 30% in the US. The grind of Japanese corporate life -- long hours, drinking sessions with colleagues -- is not compatible with family life. And the macho-sexist attitude of many, particularly older, Japanese men often makes the work environment insufferable for professional Japanese women.

When women do return to work after having a child, they can be subject to bullying, known as “matahara”, short for “maternity harassment”! The Japanese government reportedly received 2085 complaints in the year to March 2014 from female workers about harassment and discrimination related to pregnancy and childbirth, an increase of 18% compared with six years before.

Matsui seeks to dispel a number of myths that influence Japanese mindsets. First, lack of childcare and elderly care facilities is not the primary reason why so many women leave work after childbirth, as much as Japan needs more of such facilities. Dissatisfaction with their jobs was a more important factor, suggesting that Japan’s traditional work culture needs to change.

Another macho-myth is that Japanese women are simply not that ambitious and do not want to return to full-time jobs after childbirth. A Center for Work-Life Policy survey shows that Japanese women are not very different from their American and German sisters. Some 77% would like to re-enter the workforce, but only 43% manage to do so. The problem is a lack of opportunity.

Then there are some that argue that more working women means fewer jobs for men. In reality, the job market is not static. Womenomics can drive a virtuous circle of more income, consumption and then jobs. And right now, Japan is suffering from labor market shortages as the workforce is declining and projects like the Olympic Games and post-tsunami construction are driving demand.

The fourth myth is that Japan’s already-low birth rate will fall even further if more women work. Thankfully the international evidence shows that the opposite to be true. Countries with higher female labor participation rates such as Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK, tend to have higher fertility rates. And most surprisingly, the same relationship holds true for Japan’s 47 prefectures.

For Mitsui, to realize the potential of “womenomics” requires government, the private sector and society at large working in unison. Among her many recommendations are increased immigration to provide care workers for both children and senior citizens -- Japan’s restrictive migration policies have many, many costs. Japanese business, which has much lower productivity and profitability than Western companies, needs to develop more flexible and meritocratic systems of management, which facilitate compatibility between work and family life. For heaven’s sake, other higher productivity countries manage to do so. Even in Japan, corporations with higher performance consistently have greater female participation in senior management, something not appreciated by many Japanese men.

Fundamentally, greater gender equality in the workplace, needs to begin with equality in society and at home. The typical Japanese man doesn’t do anything at home other than eating and sleeping. They spend less than one hour per day of household chores and childcare -- compared with 3+ hours for Swedish and German fathers and 2.5 hours for Americans. Thankfully the younger generation is now changing.

Prime Minister Abe has put womenomics at the center of his “Abenomics” program. He has vowed “to create a society in which women shine". He has established targets and proposed a number of policies to help women stay and advance in the workforce, promote gender parity and balance working, child-raising, and care of the elderly. One such target is for 30% of leadership positions across Japanese society to be occupied by women. Some achievements to date include securing more child-care capacity, encouraging companies to disclose information concerning the promotion of women to executive and management positions, and appointing five women to Cabinet positions in his government.

But as International Monetary Fund Managing Director, Christine Lagarde said, “I know that some efforts are underway here, but I believe that there is scope to go further”. And as Michael Woodford, the former CEO of Olympus said “it’s going to be a long and arduous journey to alter the entrenched behaviours of what I found to be an incredibly chauvinistic corporate world”.

Japan’s policies and attitudes towards women are internationally notorious. In 2013, it was ranked 105 out of 136 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, which makes its assessment based on economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. This was 4 places lower than the previous year. But Asia’s other super male-dominated culture, Korea was worse, ranking 111th, despite having a female President and dominating women’s international golf.

The Philippines is the best ranking Asian country, at 5th in the world, while China ranks 69th, Vietnam 73rd, Indonesia 95th, India 101st and Malaysia 102nd. In short, it is appalling that almost all other Asian countries offer much greater opportunity to their women, even though most of them are poorer, and in some cases predominantly Islamic.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: japan, womenomics, shinzo abe, abenomics, Kathy Matsui, goldman sachs

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