On 28 August, Japan’s upper house of parliament approved legislation requiring public- and private- sector organisations to set numerical targets for the hiring and promotion of female employees. Organisations were also asked to disclose their targets and ratios as of April 2016.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe considered the law an important step towards placing more Japanese women into decision-making positions. In pledging to empower women in the Japanese workforce, Abe used the term Womenomics, first coined by Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs in 1999. So what does Matsui think of the government’s efforts so far?
Commenting on recent statistics showing increased female participation in the workforce, Matsui said the government’s “top-down pressure to raise female employment,” has had an effect. “However, in terms of substance,” she added, “many of the jobs taken up by females are in temporary or part-time roles.”
Some other female business leaders praised the new law as an important first step.
“I think it’s a very positive move, because at least it gives an ambition to the country and to the board of big companies,” says Valerie Moschetti, chair of the EBC Construction Committee. “Maybe it will not be followed by many companies, but I think [those] that show that they are following this law will attract very highly educated and ambitious women.
“It might start only with the big [ones], but any company has to start somewhere. So if women see that more firms are following the rule, they will follow the trend, too; and they will go and be employed by these companies, so it’s a good sign,” adds Moschetti.
The legislation, however, set no penalties for firms that ignore the law, and little was mentioned about discrimination against women who get pregnant. The bullying of pregnant women by supervisors, companies and colleagues is such a problem that matahara — Japanese shorthand for ‘”maternity harassment” — was one of the top buzzwords of 2014.
Moschetti adds that there are a lot of practical problems in validating Womenomics, because she feels lawmakers don’t necessarily understand what a woman needs.
“Abe’s plan to open more nursing schools and create more jobs for nannies is a very good idea,” she says. “But if the salaries of the women who will benefit from this project are not raised, only those who have an established career already will be able to acquire those services. I think this plan will only be successful when it will reach out to, and benefit, women working at the low-end jobs.”
Faced with the double demographic threat of a declining birth rate and rapidly ageing population, Japan has no choice but to boost female participation in the workforce, experts believe. Research by Goldman Sachs estimates that Japan’s GDP could be boosted by nearly 13%, if the gender gap were closed.
Other administrations before Abe’s have tried to tackle Japan’s diversity issues. In 2003, the government targeted 30% women participation in management, but that ambition did not succeed. Now, the current government is again setting a 30% target for the year 2020, the year when Tokyo hosts the Summer Games. Is there a better chance of success today?
“Yes,” says Moschetti, also co-head of external affairs at Saint-Gobain. “Maybe the economic crisis will oblige women to get work if they want to keep the same standard of living. If they know they will have to be working anyway, why not work and get a good salary?” In order to reach concrete results, there is still a long way to go, because “Japanese women have a hard time finding an equilibrium between household and work,” she adds.
Many have suggested that, along with numeric hiring targets, the government should also increase funding for childcare and other support programmes. Currently, many nursery schools and childcare facilities have long waiting lists.
“It’s true that the number of nursery schools are increasing since Abe put an emphasis on Womenonics,” the female director of a nursery school in Kita ward says. “But the staff is underpaid, and they go through a lot of stress due to the fact that Japanese women have no understanding of what a nursery school is,” she explains.
“The government is doing a good job increasing the number of nursery schools, but it isn’t taking care of the teachers, who end up quitting their jobs because it’s too stressful and underpaid,” continues the director. “The more nurseries built, the more women wish to work, but the less babies are actually taken care of. At the end of the day, this policy is not being well implemented.”
Moschetti also says part of the problem is that there aren’t enough role models in Japanese families. “If you see your own mother working hard every day, she can give you the incentive to be ambitious. If you have never seen anyone in your family having ambition at work, I can hardly see how you can become ambitious yourself.”
Rika Beppu, chair of the EBC Legal Services Committee, is one good role model: a woman who has combined successful corporate life with family. Beppu, a partner at Tokyo law firm Hogan Lovells, had her first child at age 41 and her second at 43. She believes she was able to succeed, in part, because she could afford to hire a full-time nanny.
“It’s not easy to have kids if you are in a non-promotional career path because, to be honest, to have kids you need financial stability,” says Beppu. “If you cannot get into a state-owned nursery school, you have to pay for day care, and that costs a lot of money.
“I simply cannot do what I do if I didn’t have my nannies,” she adds. “It’s not a luxury for me; it’s an absolute necessity.”
Along with a lack of childcare support, changes to the tax laws could also help more women stay in the workforce, say experts. Economists have called for the revision of laws that currently cut taxes of the primary earner if a dependent spouse earns ¥1.03 million or less per year. Many married women limit their work outside the home to take advantage of these laws.
Nearly 15 years ago, the proportion of working-age Japanese women with jobs reached 56.7%, according to the Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. By 2010, Japan’s overall female labour participation had risen to nearly 63%, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, slightly higher than the OECD average of 62%. While progress has been made, Japan’s female labour participation remains low compared to nations like the US or the UK, where 68% and 70% of women, respectively, are at work — albeit these statistics include part-time jobs.
It remains to be seen whether or not Abe’s Womenomics will have the long-term effect the government says it will.© Japan Today