LONDON – Japanese society needs to be more enthusiastic about women taking a prominent role in the workplace if the country is ever to achieve equality between the sexes, a panel of British experts on Japan recently concluded.
They said during a recent seminar at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation that while much progress has been made in terms of legislation, a cultural change is needed in both men and women to raise the status of women at work.
Helen MacNaughtan of London University said the number of nonregular workers — mainly part-timers — has soared in the last 25 years, and more than half of all working women now fall into this category.
Like Britain, many of these part-time workers have returned to work after having children. However, the Japanese part-timer is more restricted in terms of the hours she can work and mobility in the company, MacNaughtan said.
The seminar participants agreed that despite the introduction of equal opportunity legislation, women face an uphill struggle.
MacNaughtan said employers are still “wedded” to the idea of men being the “breadwinners,” and women are often seen as occupying part-time jobs, often in clerical and customer service roles.
And perhaps symbolizing the root of the problem, the “gender segmentation” of jobs is quite popular in opinion surveys.
Social attitudes on child care are quite traditional and provisions for working mothers are patchy, and only a minuscule number of men take paternity leave, she said.
There was also concern at the seminar about the fact that women who attend more academically rigorous four-year universities are less likely to work than those who attend two-year colleges.
MacNaughtan said it is “questionable” how much has changed since the 1960s, given the way part-time work has become almost an institution for women. “You have to change people’s attitudes. Unless you do this, nothing is going to happen,” she said.
George Olcott of Cambridge University said Japanese women are often reluctant to push themselves in their careers and sometimes feel held back by other women, who may hold traditional views on a woman’s place in a company.
Both agreed that the recent increase in female participation in the workforce was driven more by economic need than any feminist movements.
MacNaughtan believes that change will happen as more baby boomers retire and the demand for workers increases.
But she also thinks the governing Democratic Party of Japan should reform the tax system for working women, as it has previously indicated.
In Japan, a married man’s tax allowance can be offset against his annual income tax, provided his wife’s income does not exceed a specific limit. If her income goes above that level, then she has to pay income tax and make other contributions.
Therefore, the tax system encourages firms to pay part-time women less, MacNaughtan said.
Olcott, who helped run several Japanese companies, told the seminar that female managers and board members are “conspicuously absent” in Japan compared with the United States and Britain.
But he said equal opportunity legislation has increased the number of women in managerial posts, or “sogoshoku” in Japanese.
However, he described how many of these career-oriented, full-time employees feel obliged to act in a nonthreatening and feminine way due to pressure from women in clerical positions, or “ippanshoku,” who have limited prospects for promotion.
By contrast, male managers do not have to show the same level of caution and restraint.
He said foreign takeovers of Japanese firms normally result in a dramatic increase in the number of female managers and improved working conditions for women.
As part of his research, Olcott studied how new foreign owners brought in senior women to try to redress the gender imbalance.
They provided day care centers, scrapped company uniforms and attempted to end the sogoshoku-ippanshoku division. These firms also encouraged some of the ippanshoku to move into the management tier.
However, despite the radical surgery, he found that some Japanese staff still retained traditional views on the role of women. Indeed, some women left the company after they were promoted because they felt uncomfortable in their new role.
Olcott said that despite positive signals coming from the DPJ, he is “slightly pessimistic” about the prospects of redressing the gender imbalance in the medium-term.
David Coats, a British employment expert and a fellow of the Smith Institute, an independent center-left think tank, said that in many ways Japan resembles Britain of a few decades ago.
He said pay disparities had narrowed thanks to the introduction of minimum wage, but large differences still persist in the financial sector. While women are entering into many all-male bastions, it is largely women who are doing the “four Cs” — caring, cleaning, cooking and being a cashier.
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