National | WAW! and W20 Special

Addressing Japan's imbalanced gender representation

Mari Miura knows all about the gender equality situation in Japan, especially as it relates to parity in politics.

In her capacity as a professor of political science at Sophia University, Miura was involved in the legislative process for Japan’s Gender Parity Law, which was enacted last year, when she served as an academic advisor to the working team of the All-partisan Caucus for the Promotion of Gender Equality in Politics that composed the bill.

Over the next few months, the efficacy of that enactment will be put to the test, when first local and then Upper House elections take place. And although that bill is nonbinding, Miura believes its influence is already evident.

“I see only positive signs, because, for example, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has already said it will make a target of 40 percent of women for proportional representation, and other parties, such as the National Democratic Party, which has promised 30 percent female representation, and the Japanese Communist Party, with 50 percent, are doing likewise,” she said.

Even the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, where a Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in October last year left just one woman standing, has made noises about giving “more competitive” female candidates the opportunity to take over previously secure, and predominantly male, incumbents’ seats.

“We’ll have to wait and see how much the Gender Parity Law pushes up women’s representation, but I think this year there will be some movement in this regard,” said Miura, among whose books is 2015’s “Watashitachi no koe o gikai e: Daihyōsei minshushugi no saisei” (“Making Our Voices Heard in Parliament: The Revival of Representative Democracy”).

Considering Japan’s present situation, even the smallest increase would make a difference. Currently female lawmakers make up just 20 percent of members in the House of Councillors, while the world average is 24.1 percent.

The Lower House fairs even worse, she added, with just 10 percent of its members being women, far short of the global average of 24.3 percent and a country mile from the government’s target of 30 percent by 2020.

“Japan has lagged far behind, especially if you look at the Lower House, where Japan ranks 165th out of 193 countries,” noted Miura, who was also deputy director of the Promotion of Gender Equality Office at Sophia University and a driving force behind the “Parité” campaign, based on the French idea of absolute gender equity in politics.

“Japan’s representativeness is the lowest among OECD countries, G7 countries, or even G20 countries, so basically it ranks poorly in the world by any measure.”

While the passing of the parity law marks a milestone in Japan’s faltering struggle toward equality, Japan has other hurdles to clear before it can truly set about addressing that imbalance, Miura said.

First is finding a way to boost women’s confidence to rise to positions of prominence and, more importantly, to actively act as role models for younger generations.

This includes in business, where currently women’s representation in executive positions is the same as the Lower House -— 10 percent -— while in Europe the figure is 30 percent and in the U.S. 40 percent.

In this regard, one of the problems is Japan’s patriarchal society that expects little of note out of women, who ironically outperform their male counterparts throughout the education spectrum, Miura said.

“We have been told over and over, ‘Don’t fail, failure is a bad thing,’ and it is for girls, but everybody tolerates boys making stupid mistakes,” she commented, adding that this perpetuates women’s’ lack of self confidence and, ultimately, aspiration toward higher positions.

It also reduces the effectiveness of those women in leadership positions as role models for younger generations.

“There are some role models, some CEOs and Cabinet ministers, for example, but in a masculinized, male-dominant culture there are only two ways for a woman to survive: Either internalize that culture —- just behave like men -— or be a nice girl, be feminine, and don’t be threatening to men. … Either way, you have to please men. If you don’t, you’ll fail as a woman. That’s the message. That’s why we need more and new role models and I think more importantly, a sisterhood.”

In the business world, an overhaul of the current system, which values absolute commitment to the company over ability, is imperative in order to move talented women away from the non-regular employment that the majority of them are forced into, especially those whose “careers” are interrupted by childbirth.

“There is a structural problem that can only change if companies start evaluating employees’ skill over potential, which ultimately equals loyalty to the company, or how many hours you work,” said Miura. “This automatically creates different tracks for men and women. It might have worked in the past, but now it’s impractical in terms of making use of women’s talent and companies globally are realizing they have to make use of women’s talent.”

In a societal context, meanwhile, a more comprehensive system of child care and other facilities -— plus a healthy dose of de-stigmatizing attitudes to third-party child care and stay-at-home-dads -— would be a huge step, she said.

Meanwhile, Japan needs to find ways to build confidence in women, such as the school Miura has helped set up to develop Japan’s next generation of politicians, to ensure parity in society is achievable, she said.

At the same time, the attitudes of men, particularly those in power, also need to change toward women, starting with Japan’s shocking sexual harassment record.

In politics, meanwhile, Japan has to find a way to break the post-war mold of single-party domination, said Miura.

“You have to have power alternation to increase the number of women because there are open seats, and if the center- left parties, which tend to have more women representatives, win, you can increase the number of women representatives,” she said, adding that with each alternation of power, more and more women would be elected, as is evidenced in other countries such as Britain and France.

Japan’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which essentially means a low turnover of politicians and not much opportunity for power alternation, makes it difficult for aspiring women to enter politics, Miura added. “It’s the biggest cause of stagnation in terms of women’s representation.”

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