In 1999, we proposed that part of the solution to Japan's demographic crisis is higher female labor participation, which — at 57 percent at the time — was among the lowest in the developed world. Japan stood out from its developed country peers with its pronounced "M-curve" of female employment, reflecting the fact that over 60 percent of Japanese women quit working after giving birth to their first child and typically stayed out of the workforce until their children were grown. Despite this, however, few paid any attention to this issue, and the term "diversity" was not part of the Japanese vernacular. The prevailing view was that low female employment was simply a fact of Japanese life, and for a variety of reasons — most of them cultural — the system would be impossible to change.
In our 2014 report, "Womenomics 4.0: The Time is Now," we argued that closing the gender employment gap could lift Japanese GDP by nearly 13 percentage points. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first highlighted "womenomics" — getting more women into leadership roles to boost the economy — as a core pillar of the nation's growth strategy in early 2013, many were deeply skeptical that top-down political pressure would lead to any meaningful change. Remarkably, however, in less than three years, Japanese female labor participation has risen sharply to a record high of 66 percent, surpassing that of the U.S. (64 percent). What factors have driven this progress and what more needs to be done?