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The recent passage of a government-sponsored bill to promote women in the workplace is widely seen as a small step forward in a country that lags far behind other developed nations when it comes to gender equality.

Utilizing the potential talent of women is an urgent issue, considering Japan’s shrinking labor force.

But to achieve greater female participation in business, Japan’s long-held male-oriented corporate culture must change, experts say. How effective the new law will be depends heavily on the determination and mindset of employers, they claim.

The legislation will take effect next April 1 and expire on March 31, 2026.

Following are questions and answers about the law and the current status of women in the workplace:

How many working women are there in Japan?

The number and percentage of working women has increased in the past two decades.

According to labor ministry data, in 2013 around 24 million women were employed, compared to some 20 million in 1995. Women accounted for 43 percent of total employees in 2013, up from 39 percent in 1995, the data showed.

However, more than 50 percent of the working women in 2013 were nonregular employees, compared to 39 percent in 1995.

That number is in stark contrast to that of working men. About 80 percent of male workers were regular employees in 2013, according to the labor ministry.

What will the legislation oblige companies to do?

Companies with 301 or more employees will be required to analyze their current status and set numerical targets for promoting and employing women.

Specifically, the law requires companies to analyze their current situation in four areas: 1) the share of women in recruitment; 2) the difference in the duration of employment between men and women; 3) working hours; 4) the ratio of women in management positions.

Based on their studies, companies will be obliged to set numerical targets for at least one of the four categories in their action plans to be implemented from April. They are also required to disclose the plans to the public.

Companies with 300 or fewer employees will only be required to make efforts to comply with the law.

The legislation also obliges the central and local governments to draw up similar plans.

Are there mandatory numerical goals?

No. It is up to companies to decide what their goals should be to empower women in the workplace. There are no penalties if companies fail to reach their targets.

Although some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of the law, as it does not stipulate mandatory targets, Tamie Matsuura, a senior analyst at NLI Research Institute, said it is better for companies to set their own targets than being forced by law to reach a certain goal.

There is a greater chance that companies will not achieve the goal if they don’t act on their own initiative, she said.

Even without mandatory targets or penalties, companies will have to make efforts to create a female friendly working environment, Matsuura said.

She said as companies will be obliged to disclose information about their promotion of women, those that do not make efforts will likely to have a hard time attracting new graduates, as well as investors.

“Japan is entering the era of manpower shortage and it is becoming harder to secure highly motivated and talented people,” Matsuura said.

“In that sense, it’s crucial for companies to become the ones chosen by those people.”

What is the current ratio of women in management roles?

According to 2013 data from the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, the percentage of women in management positions stood at around 11 percent, while the percentage in the U.S., U.K., France and Sweden was between 30 and 40 percent.

Another survey conducted July 17-31 by credit research agency Teikoku Databank showed 50.9 percent of 11,008 responding companies had no women in management positions.

Also, the ratio of female new graduates hired to sogoshoku (career track jobs) has been low. According to the labor ministry, only 22 percent of new sogoshoku hires in 2014 were women. The ratio of sogoshoku job offers to female job-seekers stood at 43, while that of men was 30.

Why is the ratio of female executives so low at Japanese companies?

Observers said the major reason is Japan’s long-held corporate employment system, in which most people are hired straight out of university with rock-solid job security until they reach retirement age.

That job security comes with long working hours and frequent job relocations to other parts of the same company. The system is based on an outdated model whereby men work all day and women stay at home as housewives, they said.

Under the system, Japanese businesses did very well for about 30 years until the early 1990s, when the country’s economic boom ended. But by then, the system had taken root, experts said.

Unless that male-oriented employment practice and mindset is changed, it will be very difficult to capitalize on the talent of women, they said.

Does the law include measures to improve the working environment of nonregular employees, given that most of them are female?

No. Nearly 60 percent of working women are nonregular employees such as part-timers or temporary staff dispatched from staffing agencies, according to the labor ministry.

Given that most working women are nonregular employees, observers said companies may also need to include plans to nurture them to the level of managers.

“Female full-time employees who work as executive candidates are still in the minority,” Matsuura of NIL Research said.

To increase the pool of future executive candidates, companies need to consider creating career paths for females engaged in support jobs as well as nonregular employees, she said.

Are companies doing anything to promote women in the workplace?

Yes. Some companies have already started to create more female friendly environments.

For example, brewing and distillery giant Suntory Holdings Ltd. has been encouraging male employees to take child-rearing leave by making it a partially paid absence, given that male participation in child-rearing is a crucial factor in promoting women in business.

A total of 66 male employees took the leave in 2014, according to the company’s website.

It has also been attempting to cut employee working hours by taking several measures, including banning unpaid overtime work and also turning lights off to urge workers to go home.

Kirin Co. set up a goal to increase the ratio of women in leading positions to 300, or 12 percent, in 2021, from 100, or 4.2 percent, in 2013. The firm is beefing up support for people who take child-rearing leave, and providing programs to nurture female leaders.

Experts say it will take a long time to reach Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of increasing the ratio of female executives to 30 percent by 2020, given that currently, there are not many women who were nurtured to take up management positions.

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