Aiming for more women managers

The Abe administration’s goal of boosting the ratio of female managers at government organizations and companies to 30 percent by 2020 has prompted some leading firms to make plans for promoting more women to senior positions. Such targets may go some ways to promoting the nation’s underutilized female workers to key jobs in both the public and private sectors. But for the move to become sustained and take root, the targets need to be backed up by persistent efforts to change the male-dominated cultures and mindset at many companies, so that the number of female managers will rise not as the result of policy targets but on the basis of ability.

Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation) has urged its roughly 1,300 member firms to create plans to increase female managers. So far, 47 companies have come up with such plans, including 27 that have set specific numerical targets. Three of them — Shiseido Co., Seven & I Holdings Co. and Sompo Japan Insurance Inc. — say women will account for at least 30 percent of their management ranks by 2020. Toyota Motor Corp. says it will triple the number of its roughly 100 female managers, while Hitachi Ltd. is seeking to increase the number of women in its management ranks 2.5-fold to 1,000. In the financial industry, meanwhile, Nomura Trust & Banking Co. got its first female president this year.

Such moves appear in sync with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decisions to put more women to key posts in the central government’s bureaucracy. He tapped Nahomi Ichimiya as the first women to head the National Personnel Authority, while appointing the second consecutive female chief at the Consumer Affairs Agency. Women officials were promoted as bureau chiefs at justice, trade, foreign and health ministries.

That this news makes headlines highlights the male domination of senior positions in government and business. According to the 2014 white paper on gender equality, Japan ranked second from bottom in a comparison of 12 countries in the ratio of women in managerial positions, lagging far behind other industrialized economies. While Abe has urged all listed companies to have at least one woman on their board of directors, female executives accounted for a mere 1.2 percent of the board members of such firms as of 2011. The share of women in managerial positions at private-sector firms stood at 6.9 percent in 2012, while women accounted for a mere 2.7 percent of central government bureaucrats in management ranks last year. Japan is also near the bottom of the world’s countries in terms of percentage of female members of parliament.

Abe says that women’s greater labor participation and promotion to key positions are crucial for sustaining Japan’s economic vibrancy as its working-age population rapidly declines. But before setting ambitious targets, the government and businesses need to get to the bottom of why the gender gap remains so steep in Japan and remove the glass ceiling blocking the rise of women. And before talking about promoting more women to managerial positions, efforts must be made to make it easier for women to maintain a career path in the first place.

Labor participation of females between the ages of 15 and 64 reached a record 63 percent last September, according to a government survey. But the same survey shows that about 60 percent of women quit their jobs when they had their first child. More support for working mothers such as allowing them greater job flexibility and increasing the availability of child day care centers will be essential. But equally important will be measures to enable men to share the burden of child-rearing and household duties, such as reducing the chronically long hours of corporate employees.

Setting promotion targets for female managers may polish the public image of businesses. But sweeping change won’t take place unless they are backed up by efforts to change Japan’s male-dominated corporate culture and mindset so male and female workers are equally evaluated on the basis of their abilities and performance.