Japan firms begin challenge of boosting women in the workplace

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

As Japan on Friday marked the 30th anniversary of a law to ban discrimination against women in the workplace, a new law went into effect forcing companies for the first time to create concrete plans and publicly document their efforts on the issue.

Under the new law, companies with more than 301 employees are obliged to draw up action plans with numerical targets to promote women, including goals for female new hires and putting women in managerial posts.

They are also required to disclose details on the ratio of women to men in at least one of 14 designated categories, including new hires and managerial positions.

Although there is no penalty if they fail to reach their goals, companies that fall short of making substantial progress toward greater female participation could face difficulty in hiring top female students at a time when the nation’s labor force is expected to shrink, observers said.

The change is posing a challenge for many companies in male-dominated industries, such as manufacturing and construction, with firms forced to find effective ways to raise the profile of women. They say the government’s goal to raise the number of female managers to 30 percent by 2020 is unrealistic.

Industry machinery-maker Hitachi Zosen Corp. has struggled to hire female graduates from what is an already small pool of women studying mechanical engineering, a spokesman said.

He said about 80 percent of Hitachi Zosen’s new hires are engineering majors, and that finding women with such qualifications to increase the number of female new hires had been a huge hurdle.

As of March 1, the number of female employees at the firm stood at 7.3 percent, an upward trend, and at 1.6 percent for managerial positions, according to its action plan released the same day.

“We’ve been having extreme difficulty in increasing the number of women. Although I don’t have official figures, in Japan, women account for only about one to five of 100 engineering major students,” he said.

The firm said in its action plan that it hoped to attract more female engineering graduates in the future by ramping up promotional efforts, such as casual meetings between students and its young female employees.

General contractor Shimizu Corp. set a goal to triple the number of women in management positions to 60 in fiscal 2019, from 19 in fiscal 2014, by creating a female-friendly working environment, including flextime.

The number of women working at the firm stood at 32 as of March 1, an increase from 19 the year before.

The number of female managers, however, accounts for less than 1 percent of total management, according to Shimizu spokesman Hideo Imamura. As it hired mostly men up until 2008, the number of female employees accounts for a mere 7.6 percent, he said.

Even if Shimizu Corp. makes a huge effort to promote women, the government’s 30 percent target is way out of reach given the starting point, he said.

“Now we have around 4,000 employees in management positions. Even if we promote every single female employee we currently have to executive positions, it would be less than 20 percent,” Imamura said.

Shimizu’s flextime program, which came into force on Friday, has made it possible for staff to send off or pick up their children from nursery school so long as they work during the core hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It has also held training sessions with employees to change their male-oriented mindset and prepare them to welcome more women into their workplace, he said.

“We’ve done everything we can. And we will do everything we can. Such efforts are bearing fruit now,” he said.

Honda Motor Co. plans to push up its low number of women in management positions by making the automaker friendly to not only female employees with children but workers from diverse backgrounds.

According to its action plan, Honda aims to implement a teleworking system from October this year, and to set up day care centers at its offices in April 2017.

The automaker plans to triple the percentage of female executives by fiscal 2020 from 0.6 percent in fiscal 2014, and increase this by ninefold by 2025, according to the plan.

As the ratio of women to men is especially low in its laboratories and factories, it also plans to beef up efforts to reach out to female science students, according to spokeswoman Misato Fukushima.

Meanwhile, some companies have already made significant progress in utilizing female talents even before the law was enacted.

One such example is snack food maker Calbee Inc., which raised the percentage of female managers to 19.8 in 2015 from 5.6 percent in 2010. It is now set to increase the number further to 30 percent in 2020.

The increase owes heavily to the strong leadership of its CEO, Akira Matsumoto, who was eager to create a diverse working environment, including for working mothers, Calbee spokeswoman Satsuki Sasayama said.

The number of female employees has been around 50 percent in recent years, but is low for management posts, she said.

On Matsumoto’s watch, it started to add more women to a list of executive candidates, then dominated by men, which resulted in increasing the number of women.

Calbee also implemented a teleworking system, where employees can work from home twice a week, she said.