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Why Abe’s ‘womenomics’ program isn’t working

by

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week held a ceremony to award certificates to seven Japanese companies that “lead the way in letting women shine.” But the fanfare heralded the uncomfortable fact that Abe’s promotion of “womenomics” — getting more women into leadership positions to boost Japan’s economy — is failing.

Abe’s own officials have conceded that the goal of women occupying 30 percent of management positions by 2020 is “not sufficiently shared by society as a whole,” and lowered targets for women in section-chief positions in the national bureaucracy from 30 percent — unrealistically high — to a lowly 7 percent. The target for companies has been lowered to 15 percent. Surely Japan can do better.

There are 38 million stories (the number of females of working age) as to why women are not more prominent in Japan’s workplace, all of them different. Encounters last week with a few bright Japanese women illustrates why womenomics is a much more complex struggle than politicians pretend.

It is an issue that goes beyond creches or nursery places, and infiltrates culture, the way society is organized, and the attitudes of men and women, with all sorts of devious implications. Above all, there is a contradiction between the demands of womenomics, for more women occupying senior corporate and government positions, and Abe’s other clarion call for more babies to boost Japan’s falling population.

My interlocutor and guide was a 50-something clinical professor and departmental head in a busy and reputed university medical faculty in a major Japanese city. I shall call her Mariko Sato to spare her love or hate mail.

She has always worked, but her career, as opposed to her clinical job, started slowly “because my professor believed that a woman’s real job was to have babies, and he gave no encouragement for my research. I was determined to prove him wrong.” She got lucky when her professor retired and she was able to earn a Ph.D., win a research fellowship abroad and climb the career ladder.

She has made her own sacrifices, a late marriage, no children, breast cancer soon after she was promoted to full professor, including a major operation and nearly two years of chemotherapy. In typically dedicated Japanese fashion, she did not take a day off for her treatment, and her 10 days in the hospital for the operation was a “holiday.” In Europe, a woman in her position with stage 2 cancer would have taken a year off and been treated free under government health insurance. But under Japan’s health insurance scheme, Sato had to find more than ¥5 million out of her own pocket, though private insurance helped pay ¥3 million of it.

Just now Sato is tearing her fresh crop of hair over her own dilemma of working mothers. In her department of 40 people, she had six clinicians off for maternity leave a year ago. “Now there are only three off, which is a lighter burden,” she explains, “but still a burden because there is nothing in the budget to allow me to find temporary replacements for the pregnant women. We all have to work harder.”

What concerns her most is a bright doctor/researcher in her mid-30s who returned from a year’s maternity leave and was given tenure. Luckily she got a place for the toddler in the heavily oversubscribed university day care center. Even so, the woman insists on leaving the university before 6 p.m. each day, so that she can drive home, feed, bathe and put her child to bed.

Most senior staff in the department, including Sato herself, stay until at least 9 p.m. every day and turn up at least one day over the weekends plus holidays. There aren’t enough hours in the day for them to do their clinical work and then turn to research, success in which is essential for a bright doctor hoping to climb the academic ladder.

In middle and senior positions, university professors have to find time for endless meetings. “It’s talk, talk, talk,” says Sato, “but no one dare say, ‘No, I am too busy,’ just in case something happens and you get stabbed in the back or lose a post.”

She talked to the mother, whose husband is a general medical doctor with a flourishing inherited practice in a prosperous area of the city. The woman said that if anything happened or if she was pressed to spend more time at the university, she would quit to be with her family.

Sato is torn. “It is much easier with men. They come dedicated to the work and don’t take family time off. I don’t know what I would do if one of my female staff took time off for a second child because the whole system, including budgets that are squeezed tight all the time, will not support women who come and go and who are not dedicated to their work.” Sato cannot see another budding female professor in her own or the next-door department in the next 10 to 15 years.

National statistics show that Japanese women are increasingly a presence in the workforce: 63.6 percent of women between 15 and 64 are currently in paid work. International figures show that this is above the average for rich industrial countries, almost the same as in the United States. Closer examination shows that Japanese women occupy lower-paid and part-time jobs. A Japanese woman’s climb up the corporate ladder, not to speak of her arrival in the C-suite, is much more labored. Advocacy group Catalyst found women held 3.1 percent of board seats at leading Japanese companies, compared with 19.2 percent in the United States and 20.8 percent in Canada.

The mothers in Sato’s department are typical of Japan in another way: not young, but in their 30s, having graduated, qualified as doctors and earned a Ph.D. before getting married. The most important and often underestimated feature of today’s Japan is delayed marriage and later arrival of children — if any. Even a generation ago a woman still unmarried at 25 was “spoiled Christmas cake.”

Bringing up a child has become more time-consuming and expensive. There was a saying in the West that “children should be seen and not heard.” In big families, clothes were mended, altered and handed down from sibling to sibling, as were dolls and toys. Today’s children in the West and Japan want their own fashionable clothes, toys, games. Little wonder that a working woman who has had her first child at 30-plus is reluctant to have another, especially if she has to find her way up the career ladder.

One wishful solution would be for women to heed their biological clocks and start having children in their early 20s, as they used to. But society today has changed, and neither men nor women want to be burdened with making such choices as marriage or children so early in their careers.

It would help to make Japan’s “lifetime employment” system more flexible, so that companies could allow employees space for themselves and their families as well as for their careers. However, it does not help to replace secure well-paid lifetime jobs with insecure contract work. Short-term, companies boost their profits at the expense of workers who, with uncertain income, feel less confident to make lifetime choices such as marriage and children.

There is no easy solution, especially not to winning womenomics and boosting Japan’s population simultaneously, but it would help if politicians and so-called “thought leaders” would understand the complexity of the problems, be humbler and open a more realistic discussion.

Based in Osaka, Kevin Rafferty is a journalist and commentator, and former head of the Financial Times Asia coverage.

  • KenjiAd

    As a retired research faculty (in America), I can certainly say it is very difficult to be a research faculty and a woman at the same time in academia, even in America. In my department, only about 20% of the tenured and tenure-track faculties were female. I don’t recall anyone who had children. Many of them were single.

    Research career in academia forces one to choose between career and family life. In macho countries like America, even more so in Japan, men tend to be exempted from the time-management necessary for balancing career with family duties, while women are not afforded such privilege. Lucky to be born men.

    But I think there might be a solution, not a perfect one, but one that could point lucky men to the right direction. Companies could stop paying over-time for men who just had a baby, or even force them to go home after normal work hours.

    Does this method work? Maybe not (these guys may even stop procreating). But if men somehow have to stay home after 5, even they might start doing some family duties.

  • KenjiAd

    As a retired research faculty (in America), I can certainly say it is very difficult to be a research faculty and a woman at the same time in academia, even in America. In my department, only about 20% of the tenured and tenure-track faculties were female. I don’t recall anyone who had children. Many of them were single.

    Research career in academia forces one to choose between career and family life. In macho countries like America, even more so in Japan, men tend to be exempted from the time-management necessary for balancing career with family duties, while women are not afforded such privilege. Lucky to be born men.

    But I think there might be a solution, not a perfect one, but one that could point lucky men to the right direction. Companies could stop paying over-time for men who just had a baby, or even force them to go home after normal work hours.

    Does this method work? Maybe not (these guys may even stop procreating). But if men somehow have to stay home after 5, even they might start doing some family duties.

    • Jonathan Fields

      So… Companies should essentially punish men for having babies? I understand what you’re going for with this post, but it’s a silly idea.

      • KenjiAd

        I plead guilty for silliness of my idea. Anyway…

        Have you taken care of any newborn baby? If not (I suspect you haven’t), it’s time for you to ask your mother how hard it was, because your father probably didn’t do much helping her wipe your ass when you pee/poo all over the place and kept crying every 2 hours including midnight. lol

        It’s really not fair for only mothers to be assigned to these tasks. Fathers should not have any excuse (like work) to escape from these duties. Just my humble two cents.

      • Jonathan Fields

        If both are working, I agree it’s unfair for one partner to slack. But if one parent is a stay-at-home-whatever, I don’t see a problem with the working partner expecting more of the non-working partner in terms of household tasks. Why is it unreasonable to expect a hot meal when you get home from work? If I’m paying for everything, why is it unreasonable to expect something in return? The problem lies not in that arrangement, but in the expectation that each sex should take one role and not the other.

      • Jonathan Fields

        If both are working, I agree it’s unfair for one partner to slack. But if one parent is a stay-at-home-whatever, I don’t see a problem with the working partner expecting more of the non-working partner in terms of household tasks. Why is it unreasonable to expect a hot meal when you get home from work? If I’m paying for everything, why is it unreasonable to expect something in return? The problem lies not in that arrangement, but in the expectation that each sex should take one role and not the other.

  • blondein_tokyo

    Everyone says that the worst enemy to a woman in the workplace is another woman. This “Mariko Sato” is a perfect example. Why does she claim that women are less dedicated just because her female researchers need to take time in the evenings for their children? Are people really supposed to live to work? Has she considered it’s her attitude, not the mothers’, that is problematic?

    Also, what about the husbands of these women? What are they doing to assist their wives so as to make it easier for them to commit to perhaps a certain number of hours of overtime each week? Are their careers more important, their work more onerous? Why can’t they be the ones going home early a few times a week? Why not split the load evenly?

    Also, while this particular example is a academic position in medical research, most working women are working at ordinary jobs, in retail, service, sales, IT, and so on. But though these jobs are, in a sense, less demanding, the exact same problems crop up: the expectation of late nights and weekend work. How did that come about? Why do I always see ordinary workers, who aren’t managers, researchers, doctors, or lawyers, in my office staying there past 8 on a regular basis? How did society come to expect people to constantly, day after day, work this hard, no matter if you’re in fast food, retail, or research?

    This is the real question, and nothing will change until it’s answered.

    Speaking from my personal perspective, at my office people are given too many meaningless tasks that don’t contribute to business and are completely unproductive. They spend an hour creating charts that no one reads. They write reports no one needs to read, e.g., I went to an academic conference and was expected to write a report on it, even though none of my managers could even understand it since they don’t have expertise in my field. They have meetings to “discuss” things that have already been decided. They fill out long forms in Excel when a quick email would be sufficient. The crux of the matter is, they’re *creating* the work that keeps them in the office late. Their core jobs could be done by 5, if they streamlined.

    I’m sure most companies are similar to mine. Why they don’t or can’t streamline, I have no idea. When I point out the needlessness of the paperwork, all I get are cocked heads and raised eyebrows, and the answer is always, “This is how we do it.”

    Japan is creating its own mess by its inability to let go of bureaucracy.

  • skillet

    Women should strive to have children at peak beauty, health and fertility. It is a win-win for men, women and children. Men prefer young beautiful women, younger women have greater vitality to look after the kids, and the children get a better mother. Lower risk of birth defects ! It is not anti-women to think of biology, even if it is anti-feminist. Gender studies professors are telling women that no biological clock exists, even if their husbands and doctors know that is false.

    As Blondie pointed out below, much of the office work is just useless paper shufffling, but the children of the world need their mothers ! The children of the Western world are crying to have their mothers come home ! Fortunately, the situation is a little better in Japan.

    Women are hard-wired to do these tasks. After the kids start school, they can be top-knotch pinch hitter income earners.