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Japan, America and women’s place

by Sara Harris

THE ROAD WINDS UPHILL ALL THE WAY: Gender, Work, and Family in the United States and Japan, by Myra H. Strober and Agnes Miling Kaneko Chan. The MIT Press, 2001, $21.95.

The image of Japanese women walking several steps behind their “master” husbands is alive and well in the American popular imagination. Appearing both literally and metaphorically in academic as well as popular literature, such images are responsible for the idea that Japanese women are decades behind their Western sisters in terms of rights and status.

In a legal sense, this is arguably true. But the fabric of Japanese society is far more complex, and women more innovative, than these arguments give them credit for.

The greatest contribution this valuable and thorough study offers to the debate — how far have women advanced toward equal status? — is to deflate the myth that women in the U.S. are so far ahead.

Authors Myra Strober, a labor economist and Stanford education professor, and Mejiro University professor Agnes Chan, more famous as a television personality and U.N. ambassador, aim to clarify the reasons for pay inequality between men and women in the two countries and to infer its effects on the division of labor within the household.

To do that, they surveyed some 1,300 graduates of Tokyo (Todai) and Stanford universities 10 years after graduation. Strober and Chan examine the majors and careers the graduates pursued, what they earned and how much they worked, what they hoped and expected to earn in the future, and what decisions they made to balance a paid career, child care and work inside the home.

The idea for the book was an extension of work Strober conducted in the U.S. in the early 1990s, when Chan worked with her as a graduate student. As such, the framework for the arguments presented is built on the American perspective. That flavor remains strong — sometimes too strong — throughout. But the information gleaned from the Japan sample is no less valuable for it.

Although they uncover a wealth of interesting information from their study, unfortunately, the authors fail to present the results clearly, confounding the lay reader with statistical technicalities and partial explanations, and tripping up the specialist with unclear or missing definitions and extraneous detail.

The survey analysis is numbers-dense. And the authors’ statistical analysis of the survey results, which makes up a significant portion of the overall analysis, requires more than an elementary understanding of statistical techniques, such as regression analysis. The text is peppered with anecdotal evidence in the respondents’ own words, quoted directly from the surveys; a greater proportion of these comments would have gone a long way toward making the book more readable.

Strober and Chan set the overall tone with introductory explanations of the history of women in education, of the labor market and of equal-opportunity laws in the two countries, which clarify the differing social realities. From there, they devote the bulk of their text to analyzing the data and putting the results from the two samples in relative context. Ultimately, the book argues for specific market-level changes, such as ensuring that a greater proportion of earnings in Japan are based on basic salary, not premiums reserved for the “head of household,” and for international advocacy and pressure on governments and companies to change.

The findings, the authors are quick to say, do not accurately represent either Japan or the U.S. in its entirety. Todai and Stanford University are elite institutions; the graduates surveyed are highly educated Japanese and white Americans, respectively. For many reasons, their situation is not relevant to the populations of the two countries as a whole. Nevertheless, Strober and Chan argue, the graduates of these two classes are, in many respects, pioneers. In particular, women at these two schools were more likely to pursue nontraditional majors and careers than other university graduates.

In fact, the degree to which women in both countries had taken the opportunities open to them and advanced in the labor market was more similar than the authors had expected.

One of the survey’s biggest findings was that the ratio of full-time working women’s earnings compared to men’s was the same in the two countries: 80 percent. To the extent that earnings discrimination was based on gender, however, the reasons for this gap differed between the two countries. In the Todai sample, the difference was much more likely to be attributed to the size of the organization for which a graduate worked. Todai women did not work for large companies to the extent that men did, and their earnings suffered as a consequence.

A similar percentage of mothers from both universities continued working after the birth of a child, although the way they handled child care differed significantly. “With regard to child care,” the authors conclude, “it may be that the Japanese are ahead of Americans; our data suggest that the Japanese group child care system is more acceptable to highly educated parents than the U.S. system.”

The survey is a welcome framework through which to look at the decisions workers and families make, consciously or unconsciously, in the course of their everyday lives. In one memorable comment, a Stanford mother answered the question of how she dealt with the problem of combining career, marriage and raising a child by writing, “Like every other working mom, I haven’t. We just make it through day after day.” Even if it does reflect just getting by, individuals’ decisions do make up part of a larger picture. And as Strober and Chan show, abstracting the decisions of an entire group and comparing the resulting numbers is a useful exercise. The data and their analysis should prove valuable to many.

Unclear definitions and partial explanations, however, marred the analysis. Red flags sprang up in several places in the text.

In several places, the authors make the important point that once Japanese women leave the labor market, they must overcome significant barriers to join again. They claim in one shocking statistic that “Todai women who were full-time homemakers expected earnings at the peak of their career that were 124 percent lower than those of other Todai women.” Stanford women, by comparison, faced no significant penalty.

Rather than shocking, though, it might be better to describe this as just plain strange. It’s hard to believe. Do Todai women who return to work expect to lose money? In this case, the train of thought or trail of figures that led the authors to their conclusion is never fully explained. And while such claims don’t necessarily disqualify the larger point, they do cause the reader to lose confidence in the analysis.

In another example, the authors present in their discussion of child-care choices both statistical and anecdotal evidence of work’s effects on decisions about raising a family. But while the charts summarize ways in which work influenced the decision of parents to have children, the anecdotal evidence suggests that work most often caused adults to put off giving birth, in other words, to decide not to become parents. Why the childless were not included in the statistical sample is never explained.

Furthermore, for purposes of analyzing the division of household labor, Strober and Chan classify families as “traditional,” “egalitarian,” or “hybrid.” In this scheme, traditional families depended on the husband for financial well-being and on the wife for the management and upkeep of the house. Egalitarian families shared the three roles. So-called hybrid families, however, remained an ill-defined “everything else” category of questionable significance.

Most significantly, however, their major themes tend to be painted with too broad a brush. The “pioneers’ they have depicted may in fact stand out compared with their compatriots. But whether they were truly the vanguard of a wave toward equality in the workplace and at home is debatable, especially in light of Japan’s postbubble economic slowdown. How true is it that these graduates set a trend? Did the subsequent decade advance the causes of pay equality and women’s choices in child care and housework? Did the deepening economic contraction over that period further shut out women, or inspire them to take and create other, more rewarding opportunities? Have women increasingly combined careers with child raising, or chosen one over the other?

And while the Stanford sample lives up to many of the expectations on which the survey was originally built, the Todai sample seems to beg a different perspective. Do the men truly deserve to be painted with the same “pioneer” brush as their Todai sisters?

These and other points can serve to foster an important debate on the future of the workplace and its relationship to family life. The data compiled from the surveys offers an informative snapshot in time of the two societies. It is only too bad that the authors did not take advantage of the voices of their survey respondents, and a generally less technical approach, to craft a book that would appeal to a wider audience.