Support for working women growing in Japan, but smaller companies lag behind


Programs to support women in the workforce are expanding in Japan, nearly three years after the enactment of a new law aimed at making the country’s business environment more female-friendly.

The law took partial effect in September 2015 and came into full force in April 2016. Under the law, large companies with more than 300 employees are required to set numerical targets and adopt action plans for the employment of women and their promotion to managerial positions. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, such targets and plans have been developed and submitted by all such companies.

Although the requirement does not apply to companies employing fewer than 300 workers, some 4,600 small businesses had submitted plans to the ministry as of the end of March. Of that total, about 130 have been certified by the ministry for having excelled with regards to the employment and promotion of women.

Such companies are granted an L boshi (L star) certification, with the L standing for lady and labor.

The certification is “greatly effective” in improving a business’s image because certified companies are allowed to advertise their status in job placement ads with the government-run Hello Work chain, a labor ministry official said.

Last December, the ministry launched a smartphone site that provides information for job-seeking students on companies that are proactive about the employment and promotion of female workers. The site is part of the ministry’s efforts to create environments that make such firms popular among job hunters.

“The creation of workplaces that empower women is the very first step toward work style reforms” promoted by the government, said Yusuke Hirai of Tohmatsu Innovation Co., a provider of consulting and educational services for the development of human resources at small and midsize companies.

But in a Tohmatsu Innovation survey, only 1.5 percent of some 600 managerial or personnel affairs workers at smaller companies said they have done enough to empower women.

While headway has been made with institutional approaches to balance work and family life, such as the introduction of leave for child rearing, smaller companies have yet to gain a full understanding of the importance of women’s greater participation in the labor force, Hirai said. They need “mindset reforms,” he added.

Software Service Corp., a midsize information technology company based in Tokyo with a workforce of 240, has achieved such reforms through companywide efforts. When the law for the promotion of women took effect, Software Service established an in-house panel headed by a midcareer female employee in order to become friendly to women in the true sense of the term.

The panel collected answers to a questionnaire from all employees to locate specific problems related to the empowerment of women and conducted events such as a debate session among employees.

The panel’s efforts “raised companywide interest in the issue and increased the number of women employees willing to work more actively,” said Mai Sudo, who headed the team.

A variety of work improvement proposals to the panel resulted in “work style reforms in the whole workplace,” Sudo said.