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Joe Biden asked the right question about women in Japan’s workforce

by William Pesek

Bloomberg

Women in Japan are used to being underutilized, condescended to and exploited. Must they play a role in former Georgia Republican congressman Newt Gingrich’s cheap Washington partisanship, too?

The U.S. news media are gleefully running a video from Joe Biden’s visit to Tokyo that supposedly depicts the U.S. vice president as an out-of-touch sexist. On Dec. 3, Biden and Caroline Kennedy, the first female U.S. ambassador to Japan, visited DeNA Co., a Japanese Internet company founded by a woman that does a better job than most of taking the female workforce seriously. There, Biden approached five women and asked: “Do your husbands like you working full time?”

The “gaffe” was treated as big news by The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and became prime-time fodder for talk radio and CNN. In a “Crossfire” segment, Gingrich accused Biden of offending Japan and waging a “war on women” of the kind usually associated with his Republican Party. “How do you explain Biden’s inability to stay in touch with reality?” Gingrich asked.

Sadly, Biden is completely in touch with the reality of half of Japan’s 126 million people. The real disgrace, Gingrich’s ignorance aside, is how little is changing for Japanese women even under a prime minister who has pledged to empower them as never before. Now, there’s reason to think institutionalized sexism is undercutting Shinzo Abe’s plan to end deflation.

Even what passes for good news for Japanese women is often bad. A recent government survey found that the labor participation rate among women ages 15 to 64 recently hit a record 63 percent.

The news was billed as an early victory for Abe’s drive to pull women into the workforce. The details of the Internal Affairs and Communications Industry’s findings tell a darker story: Most of these women are being pushed into part-time and temporary positions that pay less, offer few benefits and provide no job security.

This suggests corporate Japan is using women as Band-Aids to fix today’s staffing needs, rather than harnessing their talents to increase productivity and innovation as recommended by International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde. And at the one-year mark of Abe’s structural reform program, the slow pace of empowering women should give Abenomics bulls reason for pause.

Yes, it’s early days for Abe’s embrace of what Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. calls “womenomics.” Earlier this year, Abe cited Matsui’s research that if female employment matched men’s (about 80 percent) Japan’s gross domestic product would get a 15 percent boost. But Abe’s three-pronged womenomics plan lacks imagination and potency.

The first proposal — increasing the number of day-care centers — ignores the fact that just as important as access is cost. Abe’s government should offer tax incentives or even free child care. The second is three years of maternity leave, which might actually lower Japan’s negligible birthrate further as women opt to stay on the job to gain experience instead of having more kids. The third is to raise the number of women on corporate boards — now reduced to a suggestion, rather than a mandate.

And there’s a new problem: The wage increases needed to make Abenomics a success aren’t materializing, in part because companies are using women to reduce total payroll costs. Abe talks a great deal about deregulating industry and lowering trade barriers, but much less about increasing immigration to offset a shrinking labor force. Instead, women end up filling those jobs: Almost 57 percent of working women now hold part-time and temporary positions with salaries heading down rather than up.

The bar for Japan’s women is maddeningly low. Consider the female-empowerment model Biden’s handlers chose for him to tour to highlight gender equality. Yes, DeNA was founded by a woman, Tomoko Namba, but it’s currently run by a male chief executive officer, a male chairman, and male chief financial and technology officers. Namba is the only woman on the board of a company whose workforce is 80 percent male. It’s not a place Gloria Steinem would probably celebrate, but in male-dominated Japan it counts as a trailblazer.

Americans can giggle all they want at Biden’s “awkward question,” as BuzzFeed called it. But it’s the right one. The graybeards who run Japanese companies — fewer than 1 percent of CEOs here are women — are stuck in a 1970s mindset that women should work in supporting roles until they find a husband and quit. Even as 2014 approaches, more than 60 percent of Japanese women leave the workforce after having a child.

Simply talking about tapping Japan’s most underutilized resource isn’t enough. In the year ahead, Japan must redouble its efforts to change not only the structure of the economy but also the antiquated mindsets that underpin it. Gingrich and his ilk can get away with cheap talking points — Abe can’t.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.

  • Chuck

    Look carefully at what has happened since women were allowed full time in the work force in America. Women need to be at home taking care of their families. A large number of children in the US are out of control. Crime is rampant.

    • Hanten

      Why do we never hear the phrase “working men”?
      Some very interesting statistics from America showed the link between legalizing abortions and a fall in crime. Apparently when women think its a bad time to have kids, they’re right.
      When was this magical time when women were “allowed to work full-time” ? I wasn’t aware that any woman needed any man’s permission to work. Chuck is it in your power to allow women to work?
      As Charlie says below, crime is falling in the States. Working women are not to blame for your ills, imagined or real. Children with working mothers are doing very well indeed as are their parents. Working women without children are doing fine. Stay-at-home moms apparently aren’t all that content with their lot both here and in the US.
      Japan’s economy has flat-lined and many learned people agree that getting more women into or back into the workforce would do wonders for everyone’s bottom lines. Perhaps if women were treated fairly at work, they’d be more willing to work. It’s a national disgrace that women are still being fired in Japan for getting married or falling pregnant. Making it difficult for women to go back to work won’t encourage them to have more kids. Quite reverse has happened according to most of the Japanese mothers I know.
      Equal pay, a merit-based promotion system and paternity leave would help balance the corporate gender see-saw.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

    This is actually bad analysis. You can’t assume that lower wages means that women are failing to take or achieve more skilled roles; it might simply mean that employers confronting their own struggles to stay economically relevant, are playing the burden upon women to pay the cost of their reskilling. The inevitable cost of that process might actually mean ascension for the most able, and the fall from grace of the least capable, who might simply have to satisfy themselves with low wages, or redeploy in search of work that is better suited to their natural skill set. The reality is that its not just prejudicial women. Many Japanese women have grown accustomed to not taking pride in work efficacy. Changing that culture is going to take time. Don’t expect employers to carry that burden when it was not of their making. Largely its the product of government, given that it controls the school system.