WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s acknowledgement of the unleashed potential of women should herald a new beginning for female empowerment in Japan. Yet his proposals to encourage more women to remain in the workforce actually may do more to hurt their prospects by merely reinforcing existing prejudices toward female workers and the role of women in society in general. In fact, his policies could entrench prevailing notions that childcare is women’s work.
During his visit to Washington late April, senior vice minister of the Cabinet Office Yasutoshi Nishimura delivered a speech outlining the power of Abenomics, and the move to push through with structural reform, including empowering women.
“Abenomics is womanomics,” Nishimura said, adding that the government was fully aware of talented women being systematically underutilized in Japan. He then proceeded to outline the government’s plan to open about 250,000 day care centers nationwide over the next few years.
What is more telling, though, is what Nishimura chose not to discuss regarding women in the workforce, namely Abe’s call on corporations to have at least one female board member. Of course, the prime minister’s public acknowledgement that “women are Japan’s most underused resource” is laudable, but it simply isn’t enough to focus on building day care centers to get more women back to work.
A longer-term plan to help women of all ages at all levels of ability is desperately needed, and the Abe government appears at a loss as to what can be done.
First, Abe’s team must understand that mothers of young children who need day care centers make up only a small percentage of the potential female labor force. That doesn’t mean corporate executives in their 40s and 50s no longer have child care needs. They may no longer need day care centers, but they would certainly like to be home at a reasonable hour to have dinner, help their kids with homework, and talk with them. Teenagers, meanwhile, may spend more time at school and with their peers after class, but they need adult guidance more than ever.
Balancing the needs of family and work is, in short, a continually evolving process. It will never be easy, but women shouldn’t have to shoulder the bulk of the burden after they go back to work. That kind of pressure to do everything they have done as housewives remains a major obstacle for most women to overcome.
So while building more day care centers is critical, there also needs to be a national dialogue about the role fathers play in family life, and how there can be a true partnership between mothers and fathers in raising their children.
All too often, women who want to go back to work after several years of staying home to look after their children, simply cannot. One reason is that they failed to keep up-to-date on issues and technologies related to their jobs. Another reason is companies often are unwilling or unable to accommodate workers who have had inactive periods in their careers.
Government efforts to encourage mothers who want to get back into the workforce after a couple of years looking after their infants and toddler could go a long way. Promoting networking opportunities and training programs could help women keep women motivated and hone their skills. The achievements of women in leadership positions should be highlighted, and more opportunities for them to share their views on what can be done to address the gender gap in the workplace should be provided.
But perhaps most importantly, Japanese women themselves need to be more confident about their own abilities and be willing to push the envelope. That, of course, is not a problem unique to Japan. In fact, women like Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg have advocated for women to be more confident and be willing to take risks, and their voice is growing in strength. Some of the most prominent male entrepreneurs in the country too are beginning to rally for greater gender equality too.
“Too many women impose limitations on themselves, talking themselves out of achieving their potential,” said billionaire investor Warren Buffett in a recent op-ed piece in Fortune magazine.
Having babies, raising children, and ensuring that the youth of Japan grow to become responsible citizens is not women’s work. Nor is it the responsibility of women alone to look after ageing parents as the number of elderly explodes. Likewise, in an age of job insecurity and increased global competition, it is unreasonable to believe that one person can continuously provide for a family without any interruptions.
Addressing such realities must be an integral part of any structural reform that Japan undertakes for longer-term growth. Without seeing the bigger picture, the future of Abenomics is limited.
Shihoko Goto is the Northeast Asia associate of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Asia Program based in Washington.