When Upper House lawmaker Masako Mori became a state minister for measures for declining birthrate, gender equality and consumer affairs and food safety last December, one of the first things she did was to announce that she would promote male staff within her ministries if they take child-care leave.

Mori, who is also the minister in charge of support for women’s empowerment and child-rearing, is a lawyer with two daughters, ages 11 and 14. She especially laments the fact that Japanese men with children under 6 years old only spend an average of 39 minutes per day on child-rearing.

One element preventing working fathers from giving a hand in raising children is that, while every worker should be treated equally, many have to fulfill a certain service period to be promoted under the seniority system in many companies, including ministries.

“One of my goals is to have a society that is free from fathers who do not help in any household chores or do not participate in child rearing,” Mori said recently. “Women cannot keep working and advancing in their career unless men help their working wives. Japanese society has to change the mind-set that people who take child-rearing leave will be disadvantaged in their career.”

The international community has called on Japan to harness women’s power in order to reinvigorate its sagging economy. It remains to be seen if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can follow through with his pledge to capitalize on women in a country where there is still a lingering sense of a strongly male-dominant culture.

Some critics and some Japanese women agree that Abe’s policy might be somewhat different from previous proposals in the way that Abe positions working women as an engine to boost the economy: Abe included “womanomics” as a pillar policy of his growth strategy.

Previous governments have repeatedly said that Japan needs more gender equality and had set targets to capitalize on female power. But almost 30 years after the nation implemented a workplace gender equality law in 1986, the female standing in both business and politics has not seen much improvement.

Japan ranks nearly at the top of the world in women’s education and health and survival, according to The Global Gender Gap Report 2012 published by the World Economic Forum. But when it comes to women’s economic participation and political empowerment, Japan is nearly at the bottom: Japan is ranked 101 out of 135 countries in the overall gender gap ranking, down from 98 in the previous year.

Yet gender inequality is no longer only a social problem, but also an economic problem for Japan, which has been suffering decades-long economic slumps. More than 60 percent of women quit their jobs after giving birth, creating a labor shortage because there is no sustainable system to support working mothers.

According to the International Monetary Fund, if Japan can raise the female employment rate to 70 percent, it will increase per capita gross domestic product by 5 percent. A 2010 report by Goldman Sachs suggests that if Japan can bring the rate to 80 percent, it will boost GDP by 15 percent.

Furthermore, a recent report by the Dentsu Innovation Institute estimates that Japan will generate more than ¥6 trillion, almost one-fifteenth of Japan’s ¥92 trillion national budget, if the country can put almost 3.6 million homemaking mothers aged between 26 to 49 back to work.

In order to prevent female brain- and work-drain, Abe announced that he is extending the child-rearing leave to up to three years for both women and men, and pledged to fight the nationwide day-care shortage by taking measures to accommodate 400,000 children.

Mori, however, said a key to solving the problem is to change the male-oriented mind-set of Japanese society. She has already requested a budget for 2014 to introduce tax incentives and subsidies for companies that promote and create an environment where women can work while raising children.

“Women have done enough and, honestly, they do not have to try harder,” said Mori. “What we need is to change the men.”

Some critics say that introducing a quota system for female executives might be necessary to have more women in power to change the culture. Countries such as Norway, France and Italy have laws that mandate companies to have their boards consist of at least 30 percent women. In Norway, companies will be delisted from the stock exchange unless they achieve the target.

Abe has only set a nonbinding goal to increase the number of female executives to 30 percent across the board by 2020. Mori said legally mandating such a system would not resonate with Japanese culture, but may even backfire, which is why the country should take a cautious but steady step toward achieving the goal.

As a step forward, Mori has been petitioning business circles to have at least one female board member at each company. Mori has been trying to introduce a system that will mandate companies to disclose the number of female board members in their corporate governance reports as a way to add pressure.

Mori’s effort might prove to be effective, as having female board members has globally proved to help company performance. According to Thomson Reuters data, on average, companies with mixed boards performed marginally better or the same over the past 18 months, while companies with no female board members underperformed compared to companies with female board members.

The same trend is seen among Japan-based companies. According to Bloomberg, among the 700 companies listed in the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the return on equity (ROE) is plus 23 against the Topix, while the ROE of companies with no women sitting on the board scores a minus 11.

Yet Mori admits that it takes more education for male managers to understand the positive impact of female employees. That is why she is introducing the so-called Iku Boss system, or “educating boss” program. She said that Japan needs to break away from the system in which people who do so-called service overtime or unpaid overtime are valued and promoted regardless of their performance.

Such unnecessary overworking takes time away from men to look after their children or to do work around the house, creating a vicious circle where women have to do all the work. While more than 65 percent of men work more than 46 hours a week, a study indicates that more than 30 percent of men want to work shorter hours or take child-rearing leave to help raise their children.

“We have to re-educate managers to introduce a more transparent system for evaluations,” Mori said, “because it ultimately helps the performance of the company.”

As a successful lawyer who gave birth to her first child when she was studying at New York University School of Law, she admits that she wished she had a role model to emulate how to balance her life as a mother and a working professional.

Based on her experience, her plans include introducing more diverse female role models to young women so that they can know there are ways to “have it all” regardless of their economic standing or family situation.

“I still struggle and seek help from my friends who are mothers with my children’s homework,” Mori said. “But we have to create a society where giving birth to children would not be a disadvantage for a woman but rather an important part of her career.”

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