Japan, notorious for its failure to overcome wide gender disparities, seems to have finally gotten serious about utilizing the “untapped resources” of women to enhance national competitiveness and boost economic growth amid the population decline.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has revived a government target set a decade ago of raising the proportion of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020. He has also called for listed companies to appoint at least one woman to their board of directors.

With around 60 percent of women leaving work after giving birth to their first child, that means 3.42 million people have removed themselves from Japan’s workforce.

If all of them were employed, the government estimates, their salaries would amount to ¥7 trillion, or about 1.5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

At present, Japanese women hold a meager 11.1 percent of managerial positions, the lowest level among developed nations. The figure stands at 35.7 percent in Britain and 43 percent in the United States.

The percentage of female board members among all listed Japanese companies is only 1.2 percent, far below around 40 percent in Norway, which has introduced quota legislation to oblige companies to balance gender representation at the top.

Reflecting the low percentage of women in leadership positions, Japan ranked 105th among 136 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 gender gap rankings, taking the lowest spot among advanced economies.

Responding to Abe’s call, some companies have voluntarily set targets to boost the number of women in leadership positions. Instead of adopting a quota system, which could stir debate over the equal protection clause of the Constitution, businesses have taken “positive action” that is considered a more moderate approach.

Retail giant Aeon Co. is aiming to boost the proportion of woman managers to 50 percent by 2020 from around 10 percent at present. After unveiling the goal in May, the company set up a task force to devise an action plan by its 2014 shareholders’ meeting under the guidance of Yukako Uchinaga, its first female outside board member.

Kosei Tanaka, leader of the Aeon group’s human resources strategy team, said the move was aimed at strengthening the company’s management through diversification and maximizing customer benefits.

“We need to create new values as decisions by senior Japanese male officials often result in no real change,” he said.

Emi Tanaka, manager of Aeon’s newly launched office of diversity, said the group has prepared various steps to help women balance work and family life so they can continue pursuing their careers, but many are compelled to quit due to a lack of understanding on the part of their superiors and inherent workplace pressure.

“To retain female workers, we will try to motivate women through seminars and change awareness among supervisors. We will also share best practices among group companies,” Tanaka said, though she warns that such efforts will take time.

While Aeon recruits roughly the same number of men and women each year, women currently account for only 30 percent of the group’s total full-time workforce of around 90,000, Tanaka said.

Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. also set its own goal of raising the proportion of woman board members to 50 percent by 2020, compared with 11.1 percent at present.

The Japan Association of Corporate Executives in 2012 called for an increase in the proportion of women on boards in line with the government’s 30 percent goal, urging member companies to set targets for women’s promotion and disclose gender empowerment information.

Keidanren, the nation’s largest business lobby, has launched a new division to identify obstacles preventing women from being appointed to senior positions, but the organization has yet to ask member companies to set voluntary goals to boost the number of women in leadership roles.

Hoping to galvanize government efforts, the Cabinet Office will release data on the number and proportion of woman managers at listed companies by the end of March.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry and the Tokyo Stock Exchange started a program last February in which they give an award called Nadeshiko to women-friendly listed companies.

In the first year, 17 companies, including Toray Industries Inc., Kao Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. received the award, named after a pink carnation that symbolizes the ideal of Japanese womanhood.

Riwa Sakamoto, director of METI’s economic and social policy office, said the ministry focuses more on concrete steps for advancing women’s careers than support measures to achieve a work-life balance when it awards the Nadeshiko brand.

Sakamoto said there is evidence suggesting companies with diversified boards outperform those led by a homogeneous group of executives and that they manage crises better.

“Investors are increasingly buying the shares of companies with diversified leadership as blue-chip issues,” she said.

Michiko Achilles, director of the nonprofit organization GEWEL, which promotes diversity in companies, said Japanese firms have started to empower women in recent years as a business strategy, rather than as part of corporate social responsibility, but the number of female decision-makers remains small as women won’t rise quickly in seniority-based systems.

“Many women leave their jobs after marriage or childbirth as they are often not happy with their work. It is important to ensure they have a challenging and satisfying work experience at the early stage of their career, and oblige their bosses to nurture female leaders,” she said.

Takashi Kashima, a Jissen Women’s University professor and a member of the government’s gender equality panel, said the current positive action needs to be toughened as Japan is not likely to meet the 30 percent goal by 2020 with the steps implemented so far.

“If companies fail to achieve their targets for promoting women by the deadline, the government could bar them from bidding for certain public works projects,” Kashima said.

Chie Motoi, another director of GEWEL, said women have to change their mindset about careers and make strategic decisions on issues such as when to return to work after taking child care leave.

“If women fully count on the support provided by companies, they lose the chance of promotion. Men naturally expect that they will be promoted as they age, but women are different and they have to recognize their situation,” she said.

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