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Sally Herd spent two years living in Japan, where she worked at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. She is now a political consultant at Burson-Marsteller in London. She tweets @herd_sally
As the Japanese prime minister said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, “enhancing opportunities for women to work and to be active in society is no longer a matter of choice … it is a matter of the greatest urgency”.
Japan is a country with an eternally sluggish economy, with an aging, immigration-resistant population. Abe’s “womenomics” offers a solution with its core tenet that a country that hires and promotes more women grows economically, and no less important, demographically as well. So in order to boost the Japanese economy, Prime Minister Abe turned to a long ignored asset: women.
Japanese women are among the best educated in the world. Yet only 65 percent are employed (and half of those are part-time workers), as compared to 82 percent of men. Work culture in Japan—which includes long work hours and limited leave — makes it challenging to reconcile career aspirations with domestic obligations. Up to 70 percent of Japanese women leave the labour force when they have children, and most do not return.
In response to this stalled development of women in the workforce, Prime Minister Abe pledged to create a society in which ‘all women can shine’. He acknowledged that women had long been an under-utilised resource in the Japanese economy and promised to boost female labour participation rates, increase the presence of women in corporate board rooms and improve gender equality.
Two years on, the initial hype may have faded, and critics lament that Abe’s economic experiment has failed. However, it is now, more than ever, that Abe’s ‘womenomics’ experiment needs to succeed.
The success of womenomics is integral to saving Japan’s flat-lining economy. The world’s third largest economy is crippled with stagnant growth and deflation. Government debt is mounting. Bringing more women into the workforce is a key way of raising Japan’s economic game. According to “Womenomics”, a Goldman Sachs report, it was estimated that if the employment rate of women in Japan equaled that of men, it would boost the country’s GDP by as much as 12.5 percent.
The success of womenomics is also central in helping Japan beat its demographic issues. Japan’s birth rate slumped to a record low in 2014. Some estimates say that by 2050 the population could be as low as 97 million – 30 million lower than now. A drop in the number of 15 to 64-year-olds is predicted to lower potential growth and shrink Japan’s GDP. That in turn is expected to harm the pension system and other elements of social welfare. The impact in rural areas is predicted to be especially damaging, putting the very existence of some communities in danger. Without a significant change in the birth rate, Japan is facing a demographic time bomb.
However, there are enormous hurdles that stand in the way of changing Japanese society’s views of women in the workforce. Tellingly, last year, Japan ranked 105th among 136 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum.
Employees in Japan traditionally work exceptionally long hours, making it difficult for mothers with young children to stay in the workforce. As of 2013, there were still 22,741 children on waiting lists nationwide for daycare facilities. Likewise, the rapidly growing problem of caring for one’s elderly parents has not been adequately addressed by Abe’s policies. More than 95,000 Japanese, 80 percent of them women, quit their jobs to care for relatives, mainly parents, last year. Those women who do return to the workforce usually find themselves locked into low-paying, part-time contract jobs.
Moreover, fathers rarely play an active parenting role and government policies actually reinforce the breadwinner system by giving tax breaks to households where one spouse works only part time. Japan’s out-dated social norms and government policies may explain why 70 percent of women give up their jobs after having their first child.
Another challenge for female employees in Japan lies in the workplace itself. At the very top of corporate Japan is the “bamboo ceiling”—so-called by women for being thick, hard and not even transparent. In 2011, 4.5% of company division heads were female, up from 1.2% in 1989. But relative to other countries the numbers are still dismal. Of the most senior, executive-committee-level managers in Japan, 1% were women in 2011, according to a regional study by McKinsey. The equivalent figure for China was 9% and 15% for Singapore.
Furthermore, societal attitudes towards working mothers may explain why there are so few Japanese women in senior managerial positions. Workplace discrimination and bullying of pregnant workers is known in Japanese as matahara, or “maternity harassment.” According to Rengo, Japan’s biggest trade union confederation, a fifth of young mothers experience some kind of office harassment.
Since Abe’s first unveiled his womenomics policy, there have been small shoots of progress. Government initiatives such as increased childcare leave benefits, subsidies and tax incentives for companies deemed “women friendly”, reduced waiting lists for child-care programmes and greater workplace flexibility, such as teleworking, have helped introduce one million women to Japan’s labour force.
Nevertheless, when it comes to womenomics, Abe’s “to-do list” remains long. The Prime Minister must re-adjust Japan’s idea of work-life balance by convincing both men and women that long working hours have many disadvantages for both societies and companies. Societal factors such as in-work bullying against pregnant women and working mothers must be challenged from the top-down.
While critics suggest womenomics will end with Abe’s departure, optimists believe that a generational change by 2020 would ensure women’s empowerment becomes the norm rather than a political buzzword. In short, Abe needs to prove that womenomics is for real, not some national corporate-social-responsibility exercise. The country’s future literally depends on it.