Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to have women hold 30 percent of supervisory positions in all fields by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020. But as of now, his own government is at least 15 years behind schedule.
Women fill just 6.2 percent of junior management jobs in the nation’s bureaucracy. While the intake of graduates is now more than 30 percent female, careers tend to progress at a snail’s pace. It takes about 20 years’ tenure to move into a supervisory role, meaning the new cohort of women starting work on April 1 will likely be kept waiting until the mid-2030s. Hitting the target for senior management will take even longer.
“It’s different from the U.K. or the French professional bureaucracies where, if you are really good, you can get a big job in your 30s or 40s,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “Everything’s decided by seniority. Good people languish in lowly jobs for decades.”
Driven by worries about a labor force that is both aging and shrinking, and having rejected the idea of immigration, Abe is seeking to draw a broader range of the population into work — including women and the elderly. As part of that campaign, in 2013 he revived an existing target for the promotion of women to management positions, calling for women to “shine” in every field of endeavor. The plan is often referred to as “womenomics.”
He started from a low base. In 1989, only 57 of the 757 people taking jobs in the bureaucracy’s elite track were women. In 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were 230 women of 649 new recruits. Midcareer hires are unusual in Japan, another roadblock that slows the progress of women in the workplace.
While hemmed in by rules and customs, the ministries are going out of their way to lure more women. They’re providing internships and seminars for female students, and publishing booklets of advice from senior female bureaucrats and tips on work-life balance.
“If the government takes the lead and creates a space for women to be active, that could be a good influence on the private sector,” said Miho Fujita, who is about to enter her fourth year at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and said she had a positive impression from a week’s internship at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 2015.
Most of the young people drawn into the career track of the bureaucracy come from the nation’s top universities — particularly the law department at the University of Tokyo. Some female recruits say they’re not upset by the predominance of men in the workplace, because their university departments tended to be the same.
“For better or worse, they are fair,” said Haruka Sekiya, 32, who joined the Ministry of Finance nine years ago from Tokyo University. “Whether it’s working late at night or carrying heavy objects, you don’t get let off because you are a woman.” But she is already discussing with her husband how they will handle the long hours required of bureaucrats if they have a child. That may involve asking for a position with fewer late nights, she said.
To gain one of the coveted few hundred career-track positions up for grabs each year, young would-be bureaucrats need to pass notoriously difficult examinations, for which many attend months of special classes at cram schools. Successful candidates are winnowed out by interviews. Less than 3 percent of applicants made the final cut in 2014.
Women are less likely than men to pass the test, pressuring ministries to employ a larger percentage of those who do pass.
Statistics show that women in the national bureaucracy generally take maternity leave when they have children and rarely give up their jobs. By contrast, many women in the private sector quit for the birth of their first child and return to the workforce years later, often in poorly paid part-time positions.
Yumiko Jozuka, deputy director general at the Cabinet Secretariat in charge of human resources, said most female career-track bureaucrats like Sekiya are promoted in line with their male peers. She herself managed it while raising two children, she said.
The problem lies with the much larger “general” class of national government employees, particularly those employed in the regions, Jozuka said. They tend to be promoted far more slowly, and in the case of women, often not at all.
“Women with children tend to get bogged down and end up on the Mommy track,” Jozuka said in an interview. “We want them to really be active and develop their careers — not just continue working. That’s down to their managers and colleagues. We also need to raise individuals’ consciousness.”