An increase in the number of working mothers is prompting changes in the way parent-teacher associations operate.

“Nobody spoke in the meeting; it was almost like a wake,” said one mother, whose child attends an elementary school in the Tokyo metropolitan area, referring to a recent board meeting of PTA executive members selected in a lottery.

At the school, full-time working mothers told her it is impossible for them to serve as an executive member even if forced to serve by lottery, because of the requirement to attend three to four times a month during weekdays, said the mother, a full-time housewife who also has a toddler. She, too, admits finding it a burden to attend the meetings.

In response, the school’s PTA opted to hold more board meetings on weekends, she said.

PTAs, modeled on those in the United States, were introduced after Japan’s defeat in World War II. The organizations have long assumed that their members would be full-time housewives, whose ranks swelled dramatically during Japan’s era of rapid economic growth from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s.

As such, working mothers have come under implicit pressure to take days off from work to participate in school events on weekdays. Working fathers, in contrast, are not blamed if they are absent.

But an increase in the number of two-income households and single-parent homes is forcing a review of such PTA traditions.

The PTA at Satsunae Elementary School in Sapporo, Hokkaido, changed a bylaw in February last year and now allows parents to choose whether to join or quit the association.

The change, proposed by Takaki Ueda, president of the PTA, was initially opposed by all the other executive members, who feared it would be unable to recruit members. But the executives discussed Ueda’s proposal for a year while studying the example of Nishi Elementary School in the city of Okayama, which made its PTA a voluntary association, not a mandatory one, which is the norm.

At the same time, the PTA executives at the Sapporo school got rid of various committees run by parents and stopped publishing newsletters, which were time-consuming and expensive. The reform has borne fruit, with 95 percent of parents staying with the PTA. What’s more, around 60 parents volunteered to organize a school festival held in October.

But most PTAs tend to avoid drastic reform, for fear of opposition by executive members wishing to adhere to decades-old tradition. Parents are also reluctant to speak out against the status quo, worried that their children may be discriminated against.

The burden on working mothers can be eased if employers take necessary steps. Responding to requests from employees, for example, Seiko Epson Corp., an electronics company based in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, has introduced a system allowing their employees to accumulate up to 60 expired paid holidays to use on visits to their children’s schools and for taking part in PTA activities. The company had previously allowed employees to claim expired paid holidays only when they needed extra time off to take care of sick and injured family members.

A 36-year-old female Seiko Epson employee who has three school-age children said she appreciates the new rule as she has to take at least a day off every year to attend a PTA event on a weekday.

Seiko Epson adopted the unique system in line with its policy of creating a family-friendly workplace. Thanks to such policies, female employees stay at the company for an average of 21.8 years compared with male workers’ 18.7 years.

Many community activities, including those by PTAs and women’s societies run by neighborhood associations, rely too heavily on housewives, said Naoki Atsumi, director of the research department at Toray Corporate Business Research Inc.

“While the government is encouraging more women to join the nation’s labor force, women are saddled with too many roles in society,” Atsumi said. “We need to figure out how their burden should be shared with men.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.