Business / Economy

Top OECD official touts hiring quotas in Japan would give 'womenomics' a shot in the arm

by Maiko Takahashi and Connor Cislo


Mandatory quotas for hiring and promoting women are options Japan could consider to take its “womenomics” push to the next level, according to the social policy chief at the OECD.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government deserves credit for striving to improve the status of women in the labor force, but a lot more still needs to be done, particularly in the private sector, said Monika Queisser, who serves as senior counselor for gender issues to the OECD secretary-general.

The Abe administration made advancing women in the workplace one of its top priorities early on. Japan’s business culture has traditionally been dominated by men, but the country’s labor shortage means it needs to get more women into productive roles. The lack of women in leadership positions also limits the diversity of views in corporate boardrooms, and means companies forgo the talents and abilities of half of the country’s highly educated population.

“It’s not going to happen on its own,” Queisser said in an interview in Tokyo on May 29. “Policy has to accompany this process.”

Japan is not the only country having difficulty getting more women into top business positions, Queisser said. The countries having the most success are those that legally require a certain amount of women in leadership spots.

“We’re seeing overall very little effect, apart from those countries that had a mandatory quota,” she said. “When you say you have to put 30 or 40 percent of women on a board, well, if that’s the rule it’s going to happen, right?”

She pointed to quotas for candidates for senior government positions as an example of how such requirements can help. “A quota forces people to at least go look,” she said. “That is ‘affirmative search.’ That you try harder to find the competent women.”

Queisser described quotas as the fastest way to increase female representation in the workplace but noted that other policies and practices are important as well. “Owner or investor enthusiasm, continuous monitoring within the company, and the commitment of top management and human resource management to drive change” are also key, she said in a written response to follow-up questions.

Japan’s tight labor market should create opportunities for women in the labor force, but it won’t be enough as long as the country’s punishing work norms persist, Queisser said. “If the work culture doesn’t change, if you’re expected to work 70 hours a week, or something like that, forget it.”

Abe helped by pushing business at first, she said, “but maybe he has to exert more pressure to make sure that this is accepted by everybody, because it needs to be followed through.” She added that showing “total commitment” by the government can give people more confidence that the initiative is progressing, and remove an argument from the private sector to resist changes.

Abe initially revived an ambitious goal of placing women in 30 percent of management positions in all fields by 2020, but that target was later revised to 7 percent of section-chief positions in the national government, and 10 percent for similar positions in the private sector. Wage gains for women in large companies also failed to keep pace with those of their male colleagues, possibly reflecting the lack of women in senior positions and the tendency of women to work part time after taking leave to have children.

But Queisser cautioned there are no quick fixes. “It’s a long process, but I think that it’s really important in Japan in particular to keep it going and not just let it peter out,” she said.

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