Baby-products firm pushes male child-care leave

by Tomoko Otake

In a society where raising a child is perceived as more of a burden than a joy, what can a corporation do to change this mind-set?

Employees of the Combi group, a provider of child-care products and services in Taito Ward, Tokyo, have been asking this question on a daily basis.

The company reviewed its brand strategy last year and stated that its new mission was “to create a society in which child-rearing can be viewed as fun.”

This may not be an earth-shattering notion coming from a firm in the baby-products business, but some serious thinking has started since then, with each section of the company reviewing its past performance to make it more family friendly.

So what has changed?

One thing is a new personnel rule under which male employees must take child-care leave after their wives give birth, a bold initiative in a society where the percentage of men who take such leave is jokingly likened to the Bank of Japan’s “zero interest rate.”

The company announced in July that it will grant men five consecutive days of paid holiday within six months after their partners give birth.

“It’s compulsory,” said Mayumi Fuji, a spokeswoman for Combi Corp. “We want our male workers to learn firsthand the hard work required to care for a baby.”

So far, four men who are eligible have applied for the holiday, she said.

Combi is also urging its male workers to take leave of up to 13 months, regardless of whether their spouses are working.

This leave is basically unpaid, apart from a company subsidy of 20,000 yen per month and legally mandated payments from the unemployment insurance system of 40 percent of the worker’s average salary.

Fuji confessed that before this campaign started, Combi had in its 45 years of business seen no male worker take child-care leave.

“We thought it would be shameful for a company whose mission is to make child-care fun to not have its male employees take child-care leave,” she said.

Product managers have also redefined baby strollers as a “tool to relieve mothers from the stress” of staying home and taking care of their babies all day, said Yoshichika Horino, general manager of corporate planning at Combi.

“Making a safe product is only a minimum requirement,” he said.

Hence the company has developed a new line of lightweight strollers that are easily collapsible with one hand, freeing the other hand for holding a baby.

Noriko Nishimoto, project manager at Combi Cha Cha Corp. and the mother of a teenage daughter, sees a bigger picture.

In June, a cross-industry study group organized by Nishimoto started discussing how society could play a role in raising children, rather than letting mothers shoulder the entire burden.

The group’s 50 or so members include a wide spectrum of people sensitized to the issue, ranging from housewives, members of nonprofit organizations, journalists and officials from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. When the group recently held its third meeting, Combi President Hiromasa Matsuura was also present.

“The group’s discussion generates no direct revenue for the company,” Nishimoto said. “But I hope it will help Combi let the world know that we are in an all-out campaign to support child care.”

Computer support

Cosmetics giant Shiseido Co. has developed and is marketing a computer program to help women who take maternity leave make a smooth return to their workplace.

Around 70 percent of the Shiseido group’s 25,400 employees are women. Every year, 300 take maternity leave. A female employee came up with the idea after hearing fellow workers’ stories about how they felt left out of society while on leave, Shiseido official Hisayo Takakura said.

Titled “wiwiw,” the program offers a mixture of e-learning and online communications systems. It is unique in its efforts to provide working women with personalized support, depending on the stages of their leave.

For example, the system allows users to maintain close contact with their bosses and thus be up-to-date with changes at the workplace by urging bosses to send them e-mail regularly.

The program is designed so the supervisors get an e-mail reminder every 15 days to send their subordinates on maternity leave a message, Takakura said.

Program users can also take various online lessons while on leave, including computer-related courses, along with cooking, skin-care and homemaking lessons, according to Shiseido.

The company introduced the system for its own workforce last September. It started selling the system to other companies as a personnel management tool in May, with five firms making purchases in the first month.