Japan’s Women Are Still Trapped in Gender Gap—Free Them and Profit

Japan’s Women Are Still Trapped in Gender Gap—Free Them and Profit

It really shouldn’t be this way, but the lives and careers of Japan’s highly educated and capable women are still dictated by how the country’s grey patriarchy thinks and acts.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2018 shows just how wide the gulf between how the sexes are treated in Japan remains. Of the 149 countries researched, Japan ranked 110th overall, and even lower in the key metric reflecting numbers of “Legislators, senior officials and managers” at 129th. A key contextual data point—“Discouraged job seekers”—applied to just 25.9 of males but 74.1 of Japanese females.

Those rankings have got to sting.

Japan’s gender targets continue to remain unmet

Japan often sets visionary targets for social change that unfortunately fade away like mist in the morning. Back in 2001, for example, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi boldly proclaimed his goal of having women fill 30 percent of management positions in the public and private sectors by 2020. That initiative got little traction, partly because of vociferous opposition from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which cited fears that having all those women in charge (and out of the house) would disrupt family life.

Ironically, one of the LDP naysayers then was current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who made the same “2020/30” goal one of the primary planks in his 2013 revitalization strategy. That ambitious goal was later downsized to 15 percent for the private sector and 7 percent for the public sector.

Japan’s employment vacuum is screaming to be filled

There’s little doubt, by the way, that getting the 64.3 percent of Japanese women who are 25 and above and college graduates working is necessary. Japan’s unemployment rate is hovering at around 2.5 percent, and fewer babies were born in 2018 than at any time since records were kept. That’s a serious employment vacuum that will only get more powerful.

It’s also a huge missed opportunity. According to a 2013 Cabinet Office research paper (Original: Pt. 1Pt. 2), if an additional three million women were employed in Japan, they’d earn the equivalent of US$70 billion in wages alone. A McKinsey & Company report from the same year also clearly shows that companies with more women in senior roles and on boards outperform their peers in multiple dimensions. Instead of approaching such changes as grudging appeasement, Japan’s public and private sectors should view them as an urgent and practical priority.

Women get pregnant, and other startling revelations

One big sticking point is that, well, women have babies. And when motherhood calls, they’re expected to exit the workforce tout suite. Getting back in is hard, because Japan’s childcare system is weak, working hours are still generally long, and why aren’t you at home raising your kids?

Meanwhile, in much of the world, women are gaining power and prominence. Spain’s new Cabinet is mostly female, for example, and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will soon be the first prime minister to go off on maternity leave. The women of Sudan were the force behind the recent ouster of dictator Omar al-Bashir, in power for nearly three decades.

Japan is dragging behind when it comes to gender ratio

Here in Japan, the progress is less impressive. On the political side, the more powerful House of Representatives of the Diet is just over 10 percent female. (The highest it’s ever been is 11.3 percent.) The House of Councillors is 20.7 percent. And only one of the current Cabinet is female.

There is some traction, however, largely driven by Prime Minister Abe. Japan’s Ikumen initiative, for instance, put in place by the government and championed by a faction within the Diet known as the Ikumen Diet Association, has specific aims such as increasing the share of fathers who take paternity leave and the time men spend on unpaid care work. Essentially, they’re trying to show that fatherhood is cool.

The government has also established the Nadeshiko Brand to introduce listed firms making outstanding efforts at empowering women. One is major snack food manufacturer Calbee, whose “no growth without diversity” policy has resulted in 26.4 percent of its managerial ranks being female. (It also has two female directors on its board, and one is foreign.) Daiwa House Group, Japan’s biggest homebuilder, offers management training and a mentoring environment in which female employees and their supervisors can train together.

Patriarchal hurdles even in academia

Even academia presents gender barriers in Japan. Right now, eyes are on the U.S. and its high-profile scandal featuring the rich and famous buying places for their offspring at the country’s elite universities. Last year’s Tokyo Medical University quota scandal, however, was something else entirely: tampering with the entrance exam scores of female candidates to give male candidates a boost.

This systematic bias occurred even as TMU was receiving national grant money to support diversity, aided and abetted by a high-ranking Education Ministry official. Several other med schools have apparently been doing the same thing. Motherhood comes up again: The perpetrators worried that once these female doctors had children, they’d give up the profession!

Welcoming address includes harsh warning of sexual discrimination

We shouldn’t be surprised that during her address welcoming the University of Tokyo’s 2019 class, sociologist and professor emeritus Chizuko Ueno told the female students they’d better not rest on just making it into the elite school, and that they faced blatant sexual discrimination in the working world. She cited the University of Tokyo’s own 20-percent wall of female student intake as a prime example.

That Prof. Ueno got to say this in public is notable, but that she had to say it is flat-out disheartening. Only 7.8 percent of professors at Todai are women, and only a single woman dean heads one of the university’s fifteen undergrad faculties and grad schools.

Firms in Japan that are doing right by women

There’s some good news on the corporate level. Nikkei Woman magazine polled 4,347 firms listed in Japan in mid-2018 to find the top 100 at supporting and motivating their female employees. The draws the publication discovered include solid efforts at workplace diversity, promotion, mentoring and training programs tailored for female execs, teleworking and flextime, and limiting work hours.

Of the companies queried, 570 responded—just over 13 percent, but still the highest rate in the survey’s history (were the other companies too busy to respond, or too embarrassed about their numbers and reputation?). Johnson & Johnson Japan ranked first, and the top ten included IBM Japan as well as Japanese companies such as Sumitomo Life, JTB, Kao Group, AEON and Shiseido. Sumitomo Life, for example, shuts down all PCs at 8 p.m. and forbids data traveling outside the office. IBM Japan has achieved the 30 percent ratio of women in managerial roles, and Nippon Life Insurance had almost no difference in the male-female ratio for average age, and about 70 percent of the women employees have children.

How about equal pay? Well, we can hope that firms will follow Philip Morris International’s example. In early 2019, the company was the first global multinational company to receive official certification for paying its employees, regardless of gender, equally for their work across the globe.

Hiring and marketing to female employees will both boost your business

So why am I telling you all this? Because if you’re doing business in Japan or hoping to—and have a progressive policy of hiring, supporting, promoting and mentoring female employees—you can expect a motivated and capable group of candidates eager to talk to you. And if you supply related services—childcare, management training, diversity coaching and so on—you’ll find more clients interested in talking to you.

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