Still a struggle for working women

It’s been 30 years since the law mandating equal employment opportunities for men and women, aimed at eliminating gender-based discrimination in the recruitment, promotion and other treatment of workers, was introduced. Female labor participation in Japan has since steadily increased, and some of the obsolete stereotypes, practices and outright discrimination against women in the workplace have either disappeared or been reduced. However, new legislation that took full effect on the very anniversary of the 1986 law highlights the continuing challenges that confront working women.

The equal employment opportunity law, enacted in 1985 and taking effect on April 1 the following year, initially lacked teeth — only requiring companies to make efforts against discriminatory treatment in the recruitment, hiring, assignment and promotion of workers for gender-based reasons. A 1999 amendment legally banned such discrimination, while subsequent revisions have also prohibited indirect forms of discrimination in promotion as well as unfair treatment for reasons involving marriage, pregnancy and childbirth.

Prior to the law, many companies hired male and female workers in different job categories to play essentially disparate roles, with men taking charge of the primary work and women engaging in assistant tasks. The law was a part of Japan’s response as it ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The number of female workers in Japan increased from 15.48 million in 1985 to 24.36 million in 2014. Women now account for 43 percent of the labor force, up from 36 percent three decades ago. The ratio of women in the working-age bracket of 15 to 64 with jobs hit a record 64 percent in 2014, an increase of 6.2 points over 10 years — compared with 81.5 percent among men of the same age group. Workers in irregular positions, such as part-timers — whose share in Japan’s labor force has reached 40 percent — account for 53 percent of employed women.

Some of the women who were hired when the law was introduced have taken up key positions in their companies. Still, they reportedly account for only a small minority of their generation. A recent Kyodo News survey of 28 major companies showed that about 80 percent of the roughly 1,000 women hired by the firms on a career path in 1986 had already left their companies as of last fall — an outcome that apparently reflects the glass ceiling women continue to hit in their careers. Women today occupy a mere 9 percent of managerial positions in private-sector firms, even though they account for more than 40 percent of the employees.

There are a variety of reasons why women quit their jobs in mid-career. But the departure of married women from work is often attributed to the difficulties they face in balancing their jobs and family needs. Many women quit their jobs when they give birth to their first child, and the hurdles they face as they return to work while raising children are compounded by prevalent male-centric practices at many companies such as notoriously long working hours, which force women to make a tough choice between their families and their careers while leaving men little time to share the housework, as well as the chronic shortage of day care services for their children. Employers placing subtle or outright pressure on women to quit or demoting them when they become pregnant and try to take maternity leave is so common that it has led to the coining of the phrase “maternity harassment.”

If the 1986 law was aimed at making full use of women’s potential by ending discriminatory employment practices based on gender, its purpose seems only half-fulfilled three decades on. Back in 2003, the government set a target of women accounting for at least 30 percent of leading positions at private-sector companies and government organizations by 2020. Given the wide gap with the current reality, the government in December effectively scaled down the targets to women accounting for 15 percent of positions at the section chief level at businesses and 7 percent of those in the national government bureaucracy — although it says it will maintain the 30 percent as a goal to aim for.

The Abe administration touts greater female labor participation as one of the answers to the aging and shrinking population, and calls for the promotion of more women to leadership positions. A law it enacted last year — which took full effect at the beginning of this month — requires businesses as well as central and local government organizations to compile and publicly disclose plans to increase women in management. Firms with more than 300 employees — numbering around 15,000 across the nation — will be obliged to assess the ratio of women in their recruitment and among the managerial ranks, and set numerical targets to increase them. The government plans to certify businesses that make and implement ambitious plans and reward them with preferential treatment in bidding for public orders, but companies that fail to set numerical targets or fall short of the targets will not be punished.

That such requirements need to be imposed today illustrates how much remains to be done 30 years after the equal employment opportunity law took effect. It’s not clear if such targeting alone can remove the glass ceiling for working women — the efforts by businesses remain mixed, while the plans reportedly compiled by many of the government ministries and agencies paint a fairly dismal picture. Such efforts will need to be accompanied by fundamental changes in the male-centric work practices in the private and public sectors alike. Many tasks lie ahead to turn the ideals of the 1986 into reality.