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Japan must turn over a new page in order to write the next chapter in its gender equality efforts. But despite signs of progress over the past decade, continued low international rankings for women’s participation in the workforce show the country’s political and business leaders still suffer from a severe case of writer’s block.

How to move on, and whether to do so through essentially voluntary efforts and targets or legal quotas to raise the percentage of female politicians and corporate leaders, formed the basis of much of the discussion at the 26th International Conference for Women in Business, an online event held Sunday, supported by The Japan Times.

With Japan facing a general election this autumn, how to encourage and support more female candidates was one concern. Only 9.9% of Lower House members and 22.9% of Upper House members were women as of January 2020, according to the Cabinet Office.

“Unfortunately, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, my party, is more than 90% male, and they are the ones that determine the way forward,” said senior LDP lawmaker Seiko Noda. “The one thing I still don’t have a clear answer for is what the next chapters of the LDP and Japanese politics will be. But frankly speaking, a new chapter for the party and the nation has yet to begin,” Noda said through an interpreter.

She noted that even a decade ago discussion within the LDP about gender issues was basically banned. Since then, Noda added, it’s become easier for society at large to discuss the topic, but there is still a lack of awareness about the importance of gender diversity in the political world.

“What’s lacking in the LDP is an openness to listen to people with different opinions and views, as they exclude those with other ideas different from their own,” she said.

Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Seiko Noda says there is still a lack of awareness about the importance of gender diversity in the political world. | BLOOMBERG
Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Seiko Noda says there is still a lack of awareness about the importance of gender diversity in the political world. | BLOOMBERG

Other speakers noted that, once again, Japan scored low in the annual World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap. The most recent rankings, released in March, put Japan at 120th out of 156 countries. By category, it ranked 117th in economic participation and opportunity, 139th in percentage of female legislators, senior officials and managers, and 147th in political empowerment.

At the same time, Japan came out on top for literacy rates and primary education enrollment, but fell to 129th for secondary education enrollment.

Various targets to improve gender diversity have been proposed by the public and private sector over the years, with little success. The government’s plan to have women occupy 30% of leadership roles by 2020, including in business and the legislature, was last year pushed back to “at the earliest possible date in the 2030s.” Only 14.8% of women were in management positions in business in 2019.

Japan’s businesses are working to achieve the government target. In November, the Japan Business Federation, also known as Keidanren, the corporate world’s most influential lobby group, promised to increase the share of female executives to 30% or more at its member companies by 2030. It noted that given the fact that women comprise about half the population, it would be natural to have women occupy half of the leadership positions, but maintained the 30% figure.

As for raising the number of female politicians, a bipartisan group of lawmakers decided in May not to make it mandatory for political parties to set a numerical target for female candidates in a bill on women’s participation in politics, due to opposition from LDP and Nippon Ishin no Kai lawmakers.

The slow pace of progress on gender equality in Japan has led to discussions about whether there should be a legalized quota system to achieve parity. At Sunday’s conference, Line Aune, the charge d’affaires at the Norwegian Embassy in Tokyo, spoke about her country’s nearly two decade-old quota law.

“There had been a grassroots movement in Norway to have a quota system, which began in the 1970s. We got our first female prime minister in 1981, and most of our political parties and our public sector started to introduce quotas for women. The result was more women were seen in the public sector, and in local and national government,” she said.

“But the private sector really lagged behind, despite all of the effort to increase the number of women in top management and on boards of directors. There was a lot of female networking and training. But between 1992 and 2002, women only comprised about 5% to 7% of corporate boards.”

Kaori Sasaki, founder of the International Conference for Women in Business and CEO of consultancy Ewoman Inc., says it is important to be broad minded in discussions about what diversity means. | KYODO
Kaori Sasaki, founder of the International Conference for Women in Business and CEO of consultancy Ewoman Inc., says it is important to be broad minded in discussions about what diversity means. | KYODO

Norway’s solution was to introduce a government-mandated quota, which went into effect in 2006, requiring a board of directors be 40% women. The idea was strongly opposed by both Norway’s business lobby and many women as well. But after it passed, the percentage of female board members climbed steadily, reaching 40% by 2008.

“The law mandates that if you don’t have 40% women on your board of directors, you will effectively be delisted from the stock exchange,” she said.

Michiko Achilles, senior adviser on human resource strategy at SAP Japan and to the city of Yokohama, noted that in Japanese corporations there is still resistance to the phrase “quota system.” She suggested that a more short-term goal on the part of Keidanren would help ensure the 2030 target is met.

“Having 30% female executives by 2030 might be difficult for many companies. An interim goal of 20% by 2025 is something I think we need to take steady measures to support,” she said.

While much of the conference was dominated by talk on how to turn to the next chapter in Japan’s efforts to achieve gender diversity, Keiko Honda, adjunct professor and adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, reminded participants of the story so far and how difficult it once was for Japanese women to find jobs and develop careers.

“I started working before the 1986 equal employment opportunity law. At that time, there were many companies that did not allow women who graduated from four-year universities to apply for jobs. Many companies would also not employ women who didn’t live with their families. So, some families of my generation strongly recommended that their daughters go to two-year junior colleges,” she said.

Keiko Honda, adjunct professor and adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, reminded conference participants how difficult it once was for Japanese women to find jobs and develop careers. | KYODO
Keiko Honda, adjunct professor and adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, reminded conference participants how difficult it once was for Japanese women to find jobs and develop careers. | KYODO

And Kaori Sasaki, founder of the International Conference for Women in Business and CEO of consultancy Ewoman Inc., noted that it is important to be broad minded in discussions about what diversity means.

“Diversity is not just about gender. It’s not just about more women participating in society,” Sasaki said. “It’s about different ages, different racial backgrounds, and so forth. That’s also part of diversity. Having thoughts from different people with different perspectives will make society better.”

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