U.N. regional director praises Japan’s efforts to empower women, but notes that few are reaching the top

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

The past five years of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s much-touted “womenomics” measures, aimed at advancing female economic empowerment, have shown clear-cut progress, with about 70 percent of Japanese women and girls aged between 15 to 64 now being employed or seeking jobs.

Efforts to further progress reached their most active stage last year, and with more Japanese women working than ever before the discussion has now shifted to whether their working environments and lifestyles have become any more closely aligned to what Abe calls “a society where women can shine.”

Miwa Kato, U.N. Women’s Asia-Pacific regional director who oversees the group’s work with 42 countries in the region including Japan, says the limited number of female leaders is still a crucial issue that needs to be addressed. This, she believes, requires a dynamic shift in mindset that will not only bring about a society where women can shine, but also one where everyone can achieve their goals.

“The Abe administration should be credited for making efforts to tackle gender inequality, not as a fringe issue but as a core national growth strategy,” Kato said. “Because it is pitched as a strategy at an unprecedentedly high level of governmental, Japan should not let it fade into a mere slogan.”

Yet Japan has already been losing ground on the womenomics agenda. In 2015 the Cabinet Office downgraded its previous 2020 goal for female executive officers at listed companies, from 30 to 10 percent.

The latest data published in July by the government department shows that only 3.7 percent of listed companies have women in executive positions. Kato said the 20-point downgrade is in marked contrast to the current global push toward the 50 percent mark, in which the 30 percent threshold is set as the lowest level.

Nonetheless, Kato said she feels confident about the feasibility of Japan’s agenda as she has witnessed how strong political commitment to similar goals brought about a drastic surge in the number of female lawmakers in Egypt — a country in endless political turmoil with limited women’s rights that routinely draws international criticism.

In Egypt’s 2015 parliamentary election, 89 women — accounting for 14.9 percent of the available seats — were elected marking the highest female representation in the nation’s parliamentary history. What Kato witnessed then, while serving as U.N. country director to Egypt, was a perfectly matched situation in which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s strong desire to gain more female votes matched women’s desires for greater social inclusion.

To successfully increase the number of female leaders in Japan, the country needs a fundamental shift in mindset at both the top-management and individual levels, Kato said.

“Japan needs leaders with keen vision who can commit to this mandate not only for the women of today, but for the future of Japanese society,” said Kato.

Many executive officers and government officials lament that there are not enough female candidates to reach the 30 percent target for women executives, but Kato believes they can always seek alternative solutions.

“Regardless of whether they are women or men, Japan needs powerful and visionary leaders who can clearly see what really needs to be done in order for the nation to prosper in the future,” Kato said. “Having more women in decision-making positions would contribute to increasing the number of such leaders.”

Kato also noted that even though issues involving gender inequality differ in each country, there is one ultimate universal solution that is applicable to any country — building a society where everyone can choose their destiny. Kato has a 10-year-old son who lives with her spouse in Austria. She travels almost every two days, and currently lives alone in Bangkok. Her lifestyle is quite unusual even within the U.N., where women in similar capacities mostly have older offspring or no children.

When her son turned 4, she made her decision — with her husband’s support — to stop passing up career opportunities that were going to men who had no household responsibilities, saying “I cannot accept because I am a woman or I have children.”

“Moms should not feel any guilt toward family or office. We all have to train ourselves not to think that way,” said Kato. “It’s also important to create a society where no one feels guilty about working or caring.”