In possibly a legal first, a female civil servant on Tuesday sued the government over what she calls institutional sexism at the ministry she works for, citing almost two decades of blocked promotions and pay raises.

It is thought to be the first time a current government official has initiated a lawsuit for gender-based discrimination and maltreatment, her lead lawyer, Masao Shintaku, told reporters.

The case is likely to embarrass Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has repeatedly characterized women as a key to economic growth and has trumpeted his administration’s commitment to empowering women in the workplace.

The plaintiff, who appeared before the media but whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, is seeking compensation of about ¥6.6 million — mostly comprising the salary she says she has missed out on as a result of denied promotions.

The woman is in her 50s. She currently works as an assistant manager in the Statistics and Information Department of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The ministry oversees the Equal Employment Opportunity Act for Men and Women.

She said she was appointed to her current post in 1996, and for the last 18 years has been consistently denied promotion. In the meantime, male colleagues who joined the ministry at the same time as her, in 1989, have ascended through the bureaucracy, she said.

“I’m initiating this lawsuit in the hopes that my action will help eradicate discrimination against women and rectify the underrated value of what we women do” at the ministry, her complaint states.

The woman alleges that in her division, female employees have long been consigned to the prosaic routines of statistical service and are denied opportunities to learn new skills.

Moreover, the division’s human resources bureau is significantly male-dominated, effectively ruling out any chance of personnel decisions that heed a female voice.

“We women have been treated as if all we are capable of is handling statistics,” she says in the complaint. “No matter how much we contributed or how well we performed, we stand virtually no chance of advancing in our career path.”

She also alleges that the department has deliberately refused to invite its female employees to a drink with top executives, thus “systematically” robbing them of opportunities to exchange opinions with their seniors.

“We will scrutinize her complaint and deal with it properly,” the ministry said in a statement.

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