Empowering the women of Japan

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Australia & Japan in the Region

Vol 5, No 11, November 2017

The empowerment of women has been under discussion in Japan for over 40 years. In the 70s and 80s, it was usually discussed from a human rights perspective. In the 90s and 2000s, it was reframed as a response to Japan’s demographic issues — a persistently declining birth rate and shrinking labour force.

Today, many Japanese business leaders recognise women’s empowerment as critical for corporate growth. And they have started responding on a scale the country hasn’t seen before.

At a 2013 meeting with the heads of major business associations, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tabled a request for businesses to allow three-year childcare leave for female employees. About a year later, Abe asked business leaders to appoint at least one female executive officer at each company as early as possible.

Today, many Japanese business leaders recognise women’s empowerment as critical for corporate growth.

These requests demonstrated the two requirements that must be met in order to achieve women’s empowerment in Japan. The first is the continuation of women’s careers during childcare years. The second is women’s career development and promotion.

The latest data show that 53 per cent of Japanese women continue to work after childbirth. The trend is positive — this is the first time the figure has exceeded 50 per cent and means the number of working mothers is rising.

The figures for women’s career development and promotion are less encouraging. Women hold only 13 per cent of management positions and make up just 3 per cent of Japan’s executive officers. What are the big issues that Japanese companies need to address?

The first is to change their approach towards women’s work–life balance. Companies have focused on supporting childcare by allowing women to suspend their work through childcare leave and shorter working hours. Companies have competed to extend the length of these support periods.

While 82 per cent of working women take childcare leave, only 3 per cent of working men do.

But many companies have come to realise that while this approach might allow women to continue their career, it also impedes their career development and promotion. Employees develop capabilities by experience in the workplace. If corporate support focuses on exempting women from work for a long period, it makes it harder for them to develop skills and stunts their career development.

Accordingly, it is crucial to minimise work exemption and instead allow women to return to their full-time jobs as early as possible. To ensure women can work full time while taking care of children, organisations must eradicate the practice of long working hours and embrace flexible work styles, through initiatives such as flex-time and the right to work from home.

In supporting work–life balance, companies should shift their focus from women to men. While 82 per cent of working women take childcare leave, only 3 per cent of working men do. It will remain difficult to achieve women’s empowerment while husbands are not ready to accept greater responsibility for childcare and household work. It is an encouraging sign that among men — particularly younger men — this mindset has started to change, despite Japanese society’s deeply entrenched gender roles.

The second issue is changing the traditional work style. For some time, long working hours and uniform, inflexible work–time management have been common in many Japanese companies. These practices likely derive from the view that long hours contributed to manufacturers’ success during Japan’s high-growth period.

Employee diversity provides workplaces with diverse values, ways of thinking, interests and experience, which fuels innovation.

Men with full-time housewives have been able to take advantage of this work style, but it is not one suited to working couples, particularly where working mothers are concerned. Work-style reform is essential both to secure the continuation of women’s careers during the childcare period and to improve their chances of career development and promotion.

The growing prevalence of ‘non-regular’ workers has also had implications for women’s work opportunities.

There are two types of workers in Japanese companies. One is ‘regular’ workers, employed for an indefinite term. They often move workplaces and typically work long hours.

The other type is non-regular workers, who are employed for a fixed-term. They include part-time and contract workers. Non-regular workers perform a limited variety of jobs, usually remain at the same location and don’t work long hours. As a result, career development opportunities are limited and they are paid much less.

To reduce personnel costs, Japanese companies in recent years have employed a higher proportion of non-regular workers. More than half of working women are non-regulars. It will be difficult to achieve women’s empowerment without improving conditions for non-regular workers.

Positive action is needed to support women’s empowerment. Prohibiting gender discrimination and ensuring equal opportunities are basic requirements, but that will not be enough to eliminate gender inequality. Companies need to take a range of steps to narrow inequality more quickly.

The Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace requires companies to set numerical targets and formulate action plans, which are reported to the government and disclosed publicly. While these requirements are very soft, companies are incentivised to meet them. They are monitored by job applicants and the public through information disclosure.

Why does women’s empowerment deserve to be the core of Japan’s growth strategy? Companies with a diverse workforce — and this is not just limited to gender — are able to accurately identify the needs of diverse consumers. Employee diversity provides workplaces with diverse values, ways of thinking, interests and experience, which fuels innovation.

When these views were expressed to business leaders 10 years ago, the reception was often dubious. Now, they are on board. Japanese society is changing slowly but steadily.

About the author

Kimie Iwata is President of the Japan Institute for Women’s Empowerment and Diversity Management.

Updated:  23 June 2017/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Services Team