Some long-closed doors are opening at the Bank of Japan as it seeks to hire and promote more women in career-track positions.

In a little more than a year, at least five women have taken over as chiefs of major branches or divisions of the central bank, positions that had never been held by women.

Longtime female employees say the changes aren’t limited to hiring and promotions. Life for them at the central bank is just better than it used to be, they say.

“Every year the BOJ becomes a better place to work,” said Risa Ueda, 46, a two-decade veteran of the BOJ who is head of the commercial banks examination-planning division. “Many things have changed, from maternity leave to flex-time and shorter working hours.”

The BOJ’s efforts reflect a growing recognition of the need to empower women in a country that ranks poorly in gender equality.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed for the private sector and government to promote more women, partly to take advantage of untapped talent in a country that suffers from a labor shortage. Women held just 7 percent of senior management roles in Japan last year, compared with 40 percent in the Philippines and 46 percent in Indonesia, according to global audit firm Grant Thornton LLP.

Abe originally set an ambitious goal of women holding 30 percent of all management positions by 2020 — but later lowered that to 7 percent of section chiefs in the national government and 10 percent of similar positions in the private sector.

The BOJ has been no exception when it comes to workplace practices in Japan’s male-dominated society. Women at the central bank have historically been hired as support staff, with the assumption that they would leave after they got married and had children. Only four women have sat on the policy board since it was created in 1949, and two of them have been appointed in the past six years. No woman has ever served as executive director.

While the world’s most powerful central bank, the Federal Reserve, is headed by Janet Yellen, as of last month, only 10 central banks were headed by women, according to specialist publication Central Bank News.

Japan has never had a woman head the BOJ, and there is no sign that will change when Haruhiko Kuroda’s current term ends in April next year.

In 2014, the BOJ followed Abe’s lead and said it would try to hire women for 30 percent of career-track positions. It said it topped that goal in fiscal 2016, when a third of such new positions went to women, after achieving a similar rate the previous year. Women now hold 18 percent of career-track positions at the BOJ.

By contrast, 99.5 percent of noncareer positions such as clerical jobs are held by women, the BOJ says.

Recent signs of progress include the appointment in July of Mikari Kashima as the head of the division for financial infrastructure studies. Sho Kotaka in June became the first woman to head the Sapporo branch, one of the four biggest. Last year Keiko Harimoto became the first woman to head the Yokohama branch, while Tokiko Shimizu became the first female head of a European office when she was named general manager for Europe in London. Yuko Kawai became the first female head of BOJ’s financial technology center in March.

“My impression is that a wide range of women is ascending” the career ladder, Takako Masai, the only female among nine policy board members, said. “At the dawn of this sort of a change, it’s important to accumulate cases of success and to increase the level of experience as an institution, which will lead to a virtuous cycle.”

The BOJ will continue to put systems in place so women can help further reinvigorate the institution, and so employees can maintain a work-life balance, said Mitsuru Nomura, the head of the personnel and corporate affairs department.

A lack of child care facilities and a work culture that has been less than accommodating have limited the opportunities for women with young children to continue pursuing careers. The BOJ has sought to address that, too. It now offers child care leave for as long as two years, for women and men, as well as shorter working hours for parents and a small nursery school for temporary use.

In May, the BOJ was cited by the labor ministry as one of 238 companies or institutions in Japan that met the highest standards of treatment of women employees, including hiring practices and career development.

Of course, as at many companies in Japan and around the world, more work needs to be done to change people’s attitudes about women’s roles in the workplace.

Kotaka says much of the discussion about women and working “seems to become about self-fulfillment,” which implies a choice to work that may not exist — a choice that is never assumed about men. And that, according to Kotaka, allows bosses to rationalize not paying women more.

“Self-fulfillment and making a contribution to society are meaningful aspects of work, but I think it should be noted that working is about the bottom line of living,” she said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.