In line with Japan’s child-care leave law, Aimee took a year off from her job as a business coach when her son was born last year. Having recently secured a place for her son at a public day-care center, she was looking forward to returning to work. On her first day back, however, Aimee’s boss called her into his office and told her that her services were no longer required.
Considering that her boss had been cooperative in furnishing the proof-of-return-to-work documents she had needed to apply for her son’s day care, this came like a bolt out of the blue.
“He said he wasn’t confident that I could continue to be ‘a good staff member.’ What I gathered from the situation is that he had hired a new woman and he no longer needed me,” she says.
Aimee is a victim of what is known in Japanese as mata-hara, a word derived from “maternity harassment,” and which refers to discrimination in the workplace against women who are pregnant, on child-care leave or have returned to work after giving birth. While it can be a confusing and stressful time for Japanese women, the issues can be compounded for foreign women, who may not know where to turn.
“Of course, maternity harassment has always existed, but it wasn’t until the mass media picked up on the term that it became a buzzword, in the same way as seku-hara (sexual harassment) before it,” explains Yoko Yajima, a senior researcher with Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co., Ltd. Yajima, who specializes in dealing with diversity in the workplace, says that this media coverage has played a key role in spreading awareness and encouraging dialogue about the issues faced by mothers at work.
This is supported by the results of the second national survey on maternity harassment by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), released last month. Participants in the questionnaire were working women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Of those who were pregnant or already mothers, 1 in 4 reported having been a victim of maternity harassment. While this is almost the same result as last year’s survey, the percentage of women who reported knowledge of the term “maternity harassment” jumped from 20.5 percent to 62.3 percent this year.
Japan actually has relatively generous laws for new parents. Revised in 2010, the Child Care and Family Care Leave Law applies to both mothers and fathers, but the reality is that very few companies actively encourage men to take this time off, and thus parental leave is still seen very much as a women’s issue.
An expectant mother can take maternity leave comprising six weeks before her due date and eight weeks after giving birth, and can receive roughly two-thirds of her base salary during this time. When the maternity-leave period ends, she is eligible for child-care leave up until the child’s first birthday. There are also legal provisions in place to help women returning to the workplace after giving birth, including allowing mothers of children under 3 years of age to shorten their workday by up to two hours.
One major problem is that employees and employers alike are not always aware of the laws and how they apply in various cases.
“There is definitely an information gap when it comes to maternity and child-care leave entitlement,” says Yoshiko Motoki, director of the Equal Employment Office at the Tokyo Labor Bureau.
“Large companies have specialist human-resources personnel with detailed knowledge, but smaller companies or regional branch offices often don’t. Moreover, many women in Japan are part-time or contract workers and may think they aren’t covered by the provision, when in fact they usually are.”
Motoki adds that questions related to childbirth and child-care leave now make up the second-highest number of inquiries to her office, behind sexual harassment.
Some employers count on the fact that if they put too many obstacles in an employee’s path, she might eventually give up. This was the situation that Carlene faced after she became pregnant with her second child.
“I was already a working mother and had proved myself as a reliable and capable worker, so I didn’t expect problems,” she says.
However, after announcing her second pregnancy, one male manager repeatedly forced her to perform cleaning duties and manual labor — which were neither suitable for a pregnant woman nor part of her job description. “There was no violence or even direct aggression in my case, just daily put-downs which made me feel awful and unwanted.”
Despite this, Carlene was determined to return to her job, since her growing family needed the income. Several months before her child-care leave ended, she called her former office and reconfirmed her intention to come back when her baby turned 1 and entered day care. Repeated calls to her manager went unanswered, and as the weeks went by, Carlene became despondent.
“I really needed the job, but it was so disheartening to think they didn’t want me back,” she says.
Carlene finally got closure after calling the company’s head office and speaking with the human-resources department. Her proactive stance paid off when she was offered an alternative position at another location with the same company, which has turned out to suit her very well.
“I’m so glad I didn’t give up,” she says.
Contacting the relevant authorities can serve as a shot across the bows of a recalcitrant company, indicating that an employee is aware of their rights and will not tolerate any messing around.
Jenny travels around to various schools in her work as an assistant language teacher for a dispatch company.
“After announcing my pregnancy to the company, I asked for information on how to go about getting paid during my maternity and child-care leave,” she explains. “They told me they don’t deal with that and sent me to Hello Work.”
Hello Work is the friendly name given to the labor ministry’s network of employment service centers, which manage unemployment insurance benefits and help those seeking work find jobs. After consulting with her local branch, Jenny confirmed it was the company’s responsibility to file the paperwork for her payment. The company finally did so after she took her complaint to her union.
“I had to fight for about eight months in total to get what I deserved,” she says. “My advice is simple: Don’t give up, and know your rights.”
Sometimes, even those who should be on their side can unwittingly make it harder for working mothers. Katherine took along her infant daughter when she visited her local Hello Work for an orientation session she was required to attend before she could start receiving child-care leave payments. She tried to nurse her daughter discreetly when the baby started to fuss, but anxious not to disturb those around her, she then left the orientation room.
Katherine was taken aback when a staff member then pointed toward the women’s restroom, suggesting she should nurse the baby in a stall with a squat toilet.
In fact, Hello Work operates a national network of offices under the name Mother’s Hello Work aimed at parents of young children, and equipped with diaper-changing and nursing facilities and play areas for toddlers. Not only was Katherine upset about having to feed her baby in a toilet; she also says nobody told her about her local Mother’s Hello Work for future reference, even though there was an office close by.
According to Yajima at the Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting think tank, positive change starts at the big companies, where it is becoming commonplace for younger women to go back to their jobs after childbirth. There is, however, still a lack of women in senior management positions, and even fewer that have successfully managed to combine child-raising with a full-time career.
“We need such women to be mentors and role models for the younger generation,” Yajima argues.
On the flip side, Yajima notes that the current crop of men in top management roles often struggle to understand the needs of today’s working mothers.
“Their own wives probably off-ramped from the workforce upon marriage or giving birth to become full-time housewives,” she says, “in line with the usual model for motherhood in this country until quite recently.”
Tadao, a senior executive at a foreign-owned firm, agrees that middle-aged male managers face a learning curve. Career-minded Japanese women often gravitate to non-Japanese firms, where the corporate culture is seen to be more supportive of their efforts.
“We are committed to supporting employees raising children, but sometimes it can be difficult to accommodate everyone’s wishes,” Tadao explains. “For example, some positions require off-site visits and overseas business trips, so women on reduced hours after child-care leave usually take on internal functions rather than external ones.”
Although Tadao is himself married to a non-Japanese woman, he admits that working for a foreign firm did not change his own work style, which he describes as “typical Japanese salaryman.” His wife switched to freelance work so she could pursue a career while raising the couple’s children.
The most-recent Rengo survey revealed that women consider “a lack of understanding and cooperation from male colleagues with regards to pregnancy and childbirth” as the major reason for maternity harassment, chosen by two-thirds of participants.
“It is simply no longer acceptable to write this off as a ‘women’s issue,’ ” says Mayumi Morishita, a PR representative for Rengo. “Employers everywhere need to realize that a female-friendly workplace benefits Japanese society as a whole.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is touting “Womenomics” as part of his policy to spur growth, with measures that include encouraging stay-at-home mothers to return to employment and helping those already in the workforce to better manage a career and family. However, the recent sexist heckling by members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party of politician Ayaka Shiomura in the Tokyo assembly as she called for more support for women during pregnancy and child-rearing suggests that Japan still has a long way to go.
Aimee, meanwhile, is pursuing legal action against her employer with the help of the local labor standards office. Aside from the loss of expected income, she is struggling with other issues, including the possibility that her son will lose his place at public day care if she is found not to be working. Since she hasn’t “legally” been fired at this point, the labor office has also cautioned Aimee against actively seeking new employment elsewhere.
“If it is obvious I am looking for another job, my boss could turn things around and say I wasn’t serious about working for them anyway,” she says. “I understand that employees on maternity leave can cause inconvenience for an employer, but they also need to understand they are messing with someone’s livelihood here.”
Are you a victim of ‘maternity harassment’?
If you suspect you may be facing maternity harassment in the workplace, experts say there is no need to just sit back and let it happen. Here are some steps you can take:
• Keep a detailed record of meetings, emails, paperwork, etc., related to your case.
• If you can’t talk to your supervisor or manager, try going to the company’s human-resources department — or the head office, where applicable.
When internal communications break down, try contacting:
• The Equal Employment Office of your local Labor Relations Bureau: www.mhlw.go.jp/bunya/koyoukintou/roudoukyoku
• Your local Rengo office: www.jtuc-rengo.or.jp/soudan/tel_soudan/tel_ichiran.html
(If you are not comfortable communicating in Japanese, both the Labor Relations Bureau and Rengo advise visiting with a Japanese-speaking partner or friend.)
Information in English on laws related to maternity and childcare leave can be found at www.mhlw.go.jp/english/wp/wp-hw6/dl/07e.pdf.
Pseudonyms have been used in some cases to protect interviewees from retribution by their companies. Your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org