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Lowering hurdles for working moms

by Natsuko Fukue

To a lot of working women in Japan, having children is still an obstacle to climbing the career ladder, or even simply returning to the workplace.

In a survey of about 1,000 women released in March by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and carried out between 2002 and 2008, 52.9 percent of the pollees quit their jobs after having their first child. Long work hours or lack of support from husbands or parents were among the main reasons they gave for quitting.

But some companies and municipal governments are trying to improve the situation for working parents to encourage experienced and skilled women to continue working.

For example, Shiseido Co., whose workforce is 70 percent female, allows female employees to take a maximum three-year leave to care for their first child. The leave can be extended another two years if a second child is born during the leave.

“There was a colleague who gave birth to three babies in five years,” said Yuki Honda, manager of the diversity division group in the cosmetics company’s personnel department. A majority of female workers who take this leave, however, return to work within a year and a half of giving birth, the manager said.

Although the leave guarantees that women can return to work even after a few years, they still face another hurdle: finding a day care center.

According to the labor ministry, it’s getting harder to place preschoolers in government-subsidized day care centers in major cities. In 2009, 46,058 preschoolers were on waiting lists. Tokyo had the highest number, at 11,436, followed by 2,414 in Yokohama and 1,249 in Nagoya.

But at Shiseido, mothers of children on a waiting list can apply for day care at the head office in Minato Ward, Tokyo, which can accommodate about 34 children.

“There are mothers who choose our day care as their second option (to a nursery school close to their homes) every year,” Honda said. “(Thanks to the day care), our employees feel secure about returning to work.”

The company allows female employees with children 9 years of age or younger to leave work up to two hours early. Honda, who has a child in elementary school and is expecting another baby soon, said many workers around her leave the office early. “So I naturally thought I’d be doing the same after giving birth,” she said.

“Parents face a lot of difficulties when raising a child, but at least (Shiseido) provides enough support that employees can manage both work and child-rearing.”

Even so, the company’s beauty consultants, those who give makeup advice to customers, tend to quit after giving birth, according to Honda.

Although beauty advisers with kids can also choose to work shorter hours, many decide to quit because they know that the hours after 5 p.m. are the busiest, and they don’t want to burden their colleagues with night shifts.

To change this situation, company President Shinzo Maeda set up a team in 2005 and personally talked with 5,000 beauty consultants across Japan. The system the team came up with was to replace mothers with students who can work part time after 5 p.m. Thanks to 8,000 trained part-timers, about 400 beauty consultants currently leave work early, the company said.

Another company taking bold steps to retain workers after they give birth is Softbank Mobile Corp.

As well as letting both male and female employees leave two hours and 45 minutes early, the company provides financial support to workers who give birth or have partners with a newborn.

According to spokeswoman Eri Tomita, the company gives a lump sum of ¥1 million to those who have a third child. This jumps to ¥3 million for the fourth child and ¥5 million for the fifth. In 2008, 50 employees had three to five children, Tomita said.

In addition, she said male workers can take up to five days of paid leave between a week before the expected birth of their child and a month after the birth. In 2008, 400 men applied for this leave, she said.

“As CSR (corporate social responsibility) for our employees and to change society, our company is trying to offer them support.”

Some municipal governments are also making efforts to support mothers.

Yokohama, for instance, plans next spring to start providing a bus service to take children from major train stations to day care facilities. It also aims to decrease the number of kids waiting to get into a day care center in the city.

Masanao Miyagawa, head of the city’s division for creating a better environment for parents, said nurseries at convenient locations, such as near stations, have a long waiting list, but those that are far from stations have vacancies.

Under a trial service to begin this summer, a bus will pick up children who are 3 to 5 years old from a facility near a station and take them to day care centers every weekday, he said.

Miyagawa pointed out another benefit of this service. “At day care centers away from stations, children will have more open space to play in,” he said.

Meanwhile, Adachi Ward, Tokyo, is issuing a “passport” to families with children under 16 that will enable them to get a 5 percent discount at more than 640 local shops and a discount at public bath houses and bowling alleys.

Another service allows children between the ages of 18 months and 12 years to stay for up to a week with a registered family or at a facility when their parent is sick.

No matter how much help companies or local governments offer, however, Honda, who is a working mother herself, said juggling motherhood with work is incredibly tough.

Once, Honda and her husband had to compromise when they both had important meetings on the same day.

“I know it sounds like a joke, but we even did ‘janken’ (rock, paper, scissors) to decide who would go to work and who would stay home to care for our sick child,” she said.

Admitting that company assistance is only one of the ways to ease the burden on working parents, Honda said it is crucial to provide a safety net.

“Without a safety net, workers with kids can’t pursue their careers,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to nurture future leaders. We’re hoping that our employees step up to the next phase by going through various stages in life.”