Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be a political hawk who believes Japan can once again become a macho state that can hold its own against regional threats, but as he looks for money and muscle he is turning to an unlikely source: women.
Abe appears to have overturned traditional conservative thinking with his radical, all-out push to increase the hiring and promotion of women to strengthen Japan’s economy.
The move has surprised some experts in the field of work-life balance and gender equality, who, while welcoming it, have been left with a dose of skepticism.
The onslaught of women-friendly policies is not only sudden, it comes from an unlikely leader.
Back in 2005, when Abe was acting secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, he headed a campaign by conservative politicians and academics to squash the “gender-free” movement, which was aimed at freeing men and women from fixed gender-specific roles.
Now saddled with a pet catchphrase “a nation where all women can shine,” Abe’s administration, since taking power in December 2012, has made female empowerment a pillar in his growth strategy — the “third arrow” of his deflation-busting “Abenomics” program. The first two arrows were fiscal spending and radical monetary easing, which are actually making progress.
“Abenomics won’t succeed without ‘womenomics,’ ” the prime minister told female business executives at the Women in Business Summit in Tokyo on May 27, latching onto the idea of harnessing female power as a driver of economic growth. “Corporations have so far been driven by men’s ideas. But half the consumers are women. Introducing ideas by women would lead to new innovations. . . . (It would present) new values to corporations, and eventually throughout society. When we realize a society where women shine, we can create a Japan full of vitality.”
At the end of the month, the government will announce a comprehensive policy package aiming at getting more women into the rapidly shrinking working population, including measures to help them continue working after childbirth. In Japan, 60 percent of women leave the workforce after giving birth because of the difficulty of balancing work and family, a National Institute of Population and Social Security Research survey found in 2010.
Experts have long cited a mixture of factors, ranging from Japan Inc.’s long-standing, though diminishing, culture of long, inflexible working hours and its still pervasive “men at work, women at home” mentality, to the shortage of safe and affordable day care for preschool and school-age children. As a result, an estimated 3.15 million women in Japan remain unemployed, despite a desire to work, according to 2013 figures from the internal affairs ministry.
To alleviate the day care shortage, in particular, the government has pledged to create 200,000 new spots for children by March 2015 and 200,000 more by March 2018.
There is an expression, “sho-ichi no kabe” (the first-grade wall), that refers to a lack of places where first-graders can spend time after school. It is a major reason why mothers give up their careers.
To address this, the government plans to create after-school programs for 300,000 children by March 2020.
Meanwhile, Abe has requested that all listed companies appoint at least one female board director in an effort to have women comprise 30 percent of all leadership positions in every business field by 2020. He also proposed bringing in greater numbers of foreign maids to help free women who want to work, and is mulling ways to reward women-friendly companies with government procurement contracts. Abe might even decide to scrap the nation’s decades-old spousal tax breaks, which experts say discourage many wives from working full time.
“It’s a complete turnaround,” said Machiko Osawa, professor of labor economics at the Japan Women’s University, who said the administration’s efforts to boost day care are worth commending. “The measures are late in coming, of course, but they are very important for mothers hoping to get back to work.”
Osawa said advocates of female advancement in the workplace might have succeeded in persuading Abe to be more proactive this time “by turning the issue into an economic matter, unlike in the past, where they failed by making it an ideological one.”
But Abe’s policies are far from enough, because they fail to address the fundamental question of why there are so few women in the workplace to begin with, Osawa said.
Loopholes in the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunities Law, which bans discrimination against women in the workplace, have pushed many women to opt for second-tier careers, she said, by making it legal for companies to set up two-track career systems, which consist of “sogoshoku” (elite track) and “ippanshoku” (clerical, support-type) jobs. While these categories in theory are not gender-specific, in reality only 11.6 percent of new sogoshoku hires in 2011 were women, meaning that many women’s career prospects are limited from the outset, a labor ministry survey of 129 companies said.
In addition, Abe’s package could do little to change the behavior of small and midsize companies, which employ the bulk of Japan’s workforce, said Yukari Horie, managing director of Arrow Arrow, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization that offers work-life balance consulting both to employers and employees. The family-friendly policies of smaller companies pale in comparison to larger firms, and many workers find it unrealistic in practice to take full advantage of any maternity or child care leave offered, she said.
Horie said Abe’s infamous call last year for women to take a three-year absence from work after childbirth showed how little he understands the realities surrounding working women, despite his calls to provide greater opportunities.
“I’m all for his overall message,” Horie said. “But behind the message lurks his view that women should stay at home to take care of children when they are small; he seems to have come up with these new proposals as a compromise, without changing his old values, driven by the need to solve the urgent problem (of depopulation).”
Some also say the government’s call for boosting the ratio of women in leadership roles to 30 percent within six years rings hollow, especially in academia, where efforts to achieve gender equality are even slower than in the corporate world.
Female researchers are few and far between, and those who do become researchers are often at the bottom of the hierarchy, struggling to make a living as irregular, part-time lecturers, argues Naoko Ohri, herself a part-time lecturer at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and co-author of the book “Kogakureki Joshi no Hinkon” (“The Poverty of Highly Educated Women”) published in February.
An American literature and gender studies researcher, Ohri said many universities are still dominated by the “gentlemen’s club,” whereby mostly male professors at top-notch universities in big cities have powerful private networks with regional universities, through which they send their students, often male, as new faculty hires — bypassing public hiring procedures. As of 2010, only 13.6 percent of university-level researchers were women, according to the Cabinet Office, up from 10.1 percent in 1999, when the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society took effect.
“Universities have made efforts, since the introduction of the gender equality law, to increase the ratio of female researchers,” Ohri said. “And yet, they have managed to raise the percentage by a meager 2 or 3 percent over the past decade. When women make up less than 20 percent of the workforce, it is extremely difficult for them to make a difference, to get their voices heard by the majority.”
Is there any hope? Arrow Arrow’s Horie said, of all the policies being considered by Abe, tax reform — especially the proposal to terminate tax breaks for main income earners’ spouses who make less than ¥1.03 million a year — might be most promising. Many women, especially those in their late 30s to 40s, voluntarily turn their backs on their careers without thinking hard about their and their families’ financial future, she said.
“Many women have not thought deep and hard about the possibility of their working husbands falling ill, or the prospect of their children getting into expensive schools,” she said. “They have often chosen to become tax-free dependents just because many others have, and are staying so because they have this unfounded fear about losing their tax benefits. I hope the tax reform will give them a chance to think of other options for themselves.”
Osawa of Japan Women’s University, however, urged the government to come up with measures that help low-income households instead of just scrapping spousal tax breaks, because reducing tax benefits alone could further widen the gap between rich and poor, sharpening a divide between elite career women and the rest, and end up leaving the majority in limbo with no skills and low pay.
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