More women working for less

A record high 63 percent of Japanese women held jobs in September, up two percentage points from a year before, according to a survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. For women aged 15 to 64, that meant an increase of 6.2 percentage points from 2003.

Although the result appears to be good news, the details show that little has changed. Japan’s women are still relegated to part-time or temporary positions.

The percentage increased mainly because more companies hired single working women, especially those in their 30s. Over the last decade, the employment rate for women aged 30 to 34 rose 11.5 percentage points; for those aged 35 to 39, it rose 9.2 points. That rate increased not because of better working options but because women are marrying late and having fewer children. The choice — work or children — has not changed, but women are choosing work over children more often. They should be able to choose either one or both.

Some improvement can be attributed to the revised 2010 childcare leave law, which requires companies to allow shorter working hours for women with children. Though that’s a positive step forward, only 40 percent of women continue working after the birth of their first child, a rate that has remained steady for years. Clearly women need more support if they are going to work as well as have children.

By age group, the employment rate was highest at 74.7 percent for women aged 25 to 29, followed by 74.4 percent for women aged 45 to 49 and 71 percent in the 50 to 54 age group.

The high rates for older women are not the result of their being welcomed into top jobs. They come from the slow growth of men’s income, which has forced more married women to find employment. The high figures indicate not so much social improvement as economic pressure.

The survey’s most disappointing findings were that women were being hired mainly in part-time or temporary positions. Working men without full-time status came to 21.3 percent, while women without full-time status came to 56.5 percent.

The main growth area of employment for women is in welfare and nursing care sectors, traditional roles for women. Full-time regular positions in the same sectors mainly still employ men and remain elusive for most women.

These results indicate that employment practices that improve women’s conditions are urgently needed. Childcare options are not expanding quickly enough for the increasing numbers of women working. Decreasing extra-long working hours at all workplaces would make full-time work a reality for more women.

And making things better for women will make workplace conditions better for men, too.