National / Social Issues

At conference on empowering women, Abe pledges action amid Japan's poor global rankings

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

At an annual international conference on women empowerment in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Tuesday to create women-friendly working environments as part of his drive to promote their participation in the workforce to offset Japan’s shrinking population.

“We will create an environment in which women can be fully active, pursuing their goals for both work and family without undue hardship,” Abe said at the third World Assembly for Women in Tokyo, dubbed WAW! Tokyo.

“The biggest, and indeed, the highest-priority challenge for us in bringing this about is reforming our ways of working,” he continued. “I will spearhead these reforms as we press forward.”

He vowed to take measures to reform Japan’s notorious practice of long work hours, including placing ceilings on overtime. He also pledged to realize equal pay for equal work to rectify the wage disparity between regular and nonregular employees.

Abe urged more men to take child-rearing leave and change their “men-at-work women-at-home” mindset. “Reforms to our ways of working will not succeed without changes to men’s way of thinking,” he said.

Abe’s drive to promote increased women’s participation, however, rings hollow when looking at recent figures.

Japan dropped 10 places to No. 111 in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap index from last year’s No. 101 out of 144 countries.

Also, according to the Cabinet Office, the ratio of women in managerial positions among national civil servants in 2015 stood at a mere 3.5 percent, with the number at 9.2 percent in the private sector, leading the government to effectively abandon its initial aim of bringing the ratio to 30 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, Marne Levine, chief operating officer of Instagram, delivered a keynote speech at the conference, noting that progress in technology is bringing more opportunities for women in the business world.

“We are here today because it’s still a men’s world,” Levine said. “Women are still underrepresented in almost every industry, at almost every level, and in almost every country.”

But the development of technology is helping empower women around the world by expanding their options, she said.

“It’s changing the nature of work and meaning of careers,” Levine said. “It’s breaking down barriers of entry into the economy and helping more women take that critical first step down a new path. It’s helping us build more inclusive, more productive and more innovative economies. … Although we have a very long way to go toward full equality, I’m optimistic. Because I’ve seen what these changes can mean for women around the world.”

The two-day event through Wednesday is expected to draw roughly 900 people from inside and outside Japan, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Female leaders from the private and public sectors and international organizations were scheduled to hold a series of discussions on empowerment and promotion of women in society.