The plight of Japan’s working women has improved dramatically over the past two decades. Maternity leave has become the norm, slots at nurseries have increased by more than 340,000 and the percentage of female executives or women serving as department chiefs at companies has tripled.

But Kaori Sasaki, founder of ewoman Inc., a market research firm targeting working women, says that’s not enough.

“In the past two or three decades, there have been numerous pieces of legislation to encourage women to continue working. But the fact is, it has created a sidetrack for women without changing anything on the main track,” Sasaki said in her opening remarks at the 20th International Conference for Women in Business, held Sunday in Tokyo.

By the “main track,” Sasaki was referring to Japan’s male-dominated business culture, in which those who endure the notorious and often unnecessarily long working hours climb the corporate ladder. The legislation, according to Sasaki, has simply created a subordinate path for women who want to continue their careers after having children but who can’t put in long hours at the office.

“But from now on, let’s make it a one-track system,” Sasaki said at the conference, which was supported in part by The Japan Times. “I want to make a future where whatever choice a person makes, he or she will be walking on the main track.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was a guest speaker at the event, said he is well aware of the problem.

“In a society where long working hours is the norm, it is difficult for women to play an active role in a wide range of fields,” Abe said. “To resolve the issue of depopulation Japan is facing, reform of working hours is necessary.”

To encourage women to continue working, the government is taking various measures including increasing the number of teachers at nursery schools, and creating a system where workers can take leave flexibly to care for elderly parents, Abe said.

The annual conference, with “Make History” as the theme, attracted more than 1,100 participants nationwide, from teenagers to those in their 70s. About 10 percent were men, which the organizer claims is a huge increase compared to the first conference held in 1996.

Speeches and panel discussions in the morning were followed by roundtable discussions in the afternoon with topics ranging from board diversity and women’s reproductive life cycles, to how women’s investments are affecting the economy.

Looking back at the 20-plus years of her career, guest speaker Seiko Noda, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who served as minister on depopulation issues, talked about how she survived through one of the most conservative industries in Japan — politics.

“When I was first elected as a Lower House member, I was told by many that for a woman to work in politics — a man’s career — she needs to sacrifice herself,” Noda said. “That means giving up marriage, giving up children and being married to politics.”

Her role model was Takako Doi, former president of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, who remained single until she passed away last September.

So that’s what Noda did. She focused on her career at the expense of having a family until the age of 50, when she gave birth to a boy in 2011 after receiving a donor egg.

After 20 years in politics, she says the situation facing women in her line of work has yet to improve.

“There may be more female politicians who have had children but we are still a minority,” Noda says. “People tell me publicly or behind my back that I shouldn’t have become a politician if I wanted kids.”

Male lawmakers, however, aren’t asked whether they can juggle work and family, she argues.

As Noda’s case shows, a healthy work-life balance has long been an issue of human rights and corporate social responsibility. But more business leaders are realizing that it may help bring about economic benefits, too.

Among the Fortune 500 firms, those with three or more female board members had an average 15.3 percent return on equity for the five years until 2008, while the same figure for companies without a female board member stood at 10.5 percent, according to a report compiled by nonprofit organization Catalyst in 2011.

In other words, companies with a number of female board members outperformed those without any women represented on their board.

“The reality is that women, non-Japanese, LGBT, handicapped persons — they offer a different perspective in the decision-making process,” said Kathy Matsui, another speaker and vice chair of Goldman Sachs Japan Co. “This is not just optional for Japan but is imperative.”

But at present, only 196 of the 1,858 firms listed on the nation’s benchmark Topix index have female directors, and 1.5 percent of all board members are women, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Japanese companies aren’t the only ones likely to benefit from adding more women to the higher echelons of the labor force.

According to an estimate by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2012, gender parity in the workforce would push up Japan’s gross domestic product by almost 20 percent over the next two decades.

“Japan’s future depends on whether we could create a society where women could shine,” said prime minister Abe.

But the LDP’s Noda, who may become Abe’s rival in September’s LDP presidential race, was skeptical about how seriously the prime minister wants to pursue this goal.

“If we have deliberated 120 hours in the Lower House (on security bills that would allow the Self-Defense Forces to aid an ally under attack), then we should put 120 hours on this issue at the same time,” she said. “That, I would say, would ‘make history.’ “

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.