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Does more and more women pursuing a career path lead to a decline in a nation’s birthrate? Statistics prove otherwise, according to the participants in the Oct. 18 and 31 symposiums.

What matters, they said, is whether there is a positive environment in which women can continue to work while raising children.

“To discuss the issue of falling birthrates, we have to correctly assess the background factors,” said Hiroki Sato, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science, casting doubts on the often-cited reasoning that birthrates decline as more women take up jobs outside of the family.

Data show that there is no fixed corelation between birthrate and women’s participation in the workforce, Sato pointed out.

Kumiko Bando, director general of the Gender Equality Bureau of the Cabinet Office, said that a 2000 comparison among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that the birthrate tends to be higher in nations where more women join the workforce.

During the three decades between 1970 and 2000, the growth in the rate of female labor participation in Japan was the lowest among the 24 OECD members while the nation’s birthrate continued to fall, Bando told the Oct. 31 session.

Countries that reversed the decline in birthrate while the number of working women increased — such as France and the Netherlands — tend to offer greater job flexibility and a diverse choice of lifestyles, she noted.

A similar pattern is seen in comparisons among Japan’s 47 prefectures. Bando said that prefectures with a higher ratio of female labor participation tend to have a higher birthrate.

Prefectures with an above-average birthrate and female labor participation rate are Kumamoto, Yamagata, Nagano, Saga, Aomori, Yamanashi, Fukushima, Toyama, Tottori, Iwate, Miyazaki, Fukui, Mie, Shimane, Gunma and Shizuoka.

On the other hand, prefectures where birthrate and female labor participation are below the national average are Tokushima, Osaka, Ehime, Hokkaido, Wakayama, Fukuoka, Hyogo, Ibaraki, Hiroshima, Kanagawa, Tokyo, Kyoto, Miyagi, Saitama, Chiba and Nara.

Prefectures in the latter category are given below-average marks in a Cabinet Office survey on social environment factors linked to birthrate and gender equality, such as working hours, work flexibility, child-care support by the community and elderly members of the family, and lifestyle flexibility, Bando said.

Haruna Okada, corporate senior vice president for Benesse Corp. who has been involved in the publication of magazines featuring child rearing-related information, said that roughly 60 percent of the workers at the company are women.

Therefore, women continuing to work after childbirth and producing results are crucial to Benesse’s performance as a company, she said during the Oct. 18 session.

Systematic support for working mothers such as expanded child-care leave, shorter working hours and creation of in-house day-care facilities can be made possible only if top management takes the initiative, Okada said. But the key lies in the implementation — whether the workers can really have access to these services, she said.

At Benesse, about 90 percent of female employees return to work after childbirth, and nearly 40 workers on average take child-care leave a year. But long working hours are a problem for male and female workers as they raise their children, and it is not unusual to find female employees in the late stages of pregnancy working extra hours, Okada noted.

Atsuko Muraki, a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry councilor in charge of equal employment, children and families, said that the overall ratio of Japanese women continuing to work after childbirth has not increased, with roughly 70 percent quitting their jobs just before giving birth to their first child.

Muraki urged companies to not only introduce such measures as child-care leave and flexible working hours to support child rearing by their employees, but to monitor the implementation of the measures and how things have changed.

Whether the child-care support measures for company workers really work will depend a lot on the managers who supervise the workers, said Sato of the University of Tokyo. “Managers need to acquire the know-how to run their offices with workers who raise children . . . who may take child-care leave and who may not be able to work overtime,” Sato said.

The Cabinet Office’s Bando said that women in Japan still face sharp disadvantages in career opportunities and employment conditions.

The average hourly wage for full-time female workers was 67 percent of what men earn in 2005 — although the figure has gradually increased from 60 percent in 1990.

Roughly 40 percent of women working in nonfarm sectors are on part-time contracts, compared with 8.6 percent for men. Roughly two-thirds of female workers earn less than 3 million yen a year while the ratio for men is about 20 percent.

But women today work longer for their employees and are much more willing than their predecessors to take up positions of responsibility, said Fusako Utsumi, president of NEC Learning Ltd.

A 2002 survey showed that women work nine years on average for a single company — shorter than the 13.5 years for men but much longer than the four years in 1965 and seven years in 1986, Utsumi, who heads an NEC Corp. unit in charge of human resources development, told the Oct. 31 symposium.

The ratio of female workers who upon joining a company aspire to take up executive positions has increased from 8 percent in 1976 to 21.2 percent in 2005, Utsumi said, citing surveys by the Japan Productivity Center for Socioeconomic Development. The figures began to pick up in 1986, when the equal employment opportunity law took effect, she added.

The ratio of women in middle-management positions has gradually increased, Utsumi said, although she acknowledged that Japan lags far behind other industrialized countries. Women account for 9.7 percent of management positions in Japan, compared with 45.9 percent in the United States, 35.9 percent in Germany and 32.5 percent in Britain, she noted.