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LONDON — In Britain, the Equal Opportunities Commission is a powerful body that has been working hard to ensure that there is no discrimination in the workplace, particularly on grounds of gender. Women have still not achieved complete equality in pay and conditions, but much progress has been made. Women can now be found not only in senior positions in all professions, including law and medicine, but also in Parliament and the Cabinet. There are now women chief executives of companies and many women directors.

At the same time the government has been trying to improve conditions for working mothers. These include provisions for maternity (and paternity) leave as well as tax credits and allowances for children and the provision of more day-care centers for the children of working mothers. Families in which both partners work are becoming the norm. Remarks suggesting that the only place for a woman is the home, where she can concentrate on bringing up children, are regarded as old-fashioned and “politically incorrect.” The feminist movement may not yet be as strong in Britain as it is in the United States and parts of Scandinavia, but it is a major political force that all parties need to heed.

While there has been some increase in the numbers of Japanese women in the civil service and some professions, very few women have been appointed to Cabinet posts or to senior positions in Japanese companies and financial institutions. This is hardly surprising, as most major Japanese companies still employ their female staff in unrewarding jobs such as receptionists and tea ladies. Moreover, most companies have required women to give up their jobs when they become pregnant, and when a man marries a colleague in the same office she is usually required to resign. This is wasteful, since for many young people the office may be the only place where they can get to know well someone of the opposite sex.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that intelligent young Japanese women graduating from university seek to join a foreign company, where they have higher salaries and greater opportunities of promotion and can expect to be treated as equals. British banks operating in Japan have often found that Japanese women applying for jobs are better-qualified than their male counterparts, not only in terms of intelligence but also in their personal skills.

Of course, Japanese education remains an obstacle to greater progress by women in Japan. There are too many schools and universities that fail to bring out the best in their students by putting too much stress on the Japanese virtues of meekness and compliance. Girls often lack the incentive to do well, as most jobs open to those who are not outstanding tend to be dead-end ones. Parents are also to blame for the emphasis they place on their sons, who may be treated like little emperors.

When I first heard the term “OL” I thought it meant “old lady”! When I learned that it was a way of describing any girl who worked in an office, I realized that it was an even more pejorative term. Of course, for exporters of prestigious consumer goods to Japan, “office ladies” were perfect targets. Most lived at home with their parents and did not have to contribute much, if anything, to their keep. Their earnings were thus largely pocket money.

As they were expected to cease work when they got married, the OLs who were enjoying their leisure and their generous incomes often put off marriage and having children. They knew that when they had children they would be expected to devote themselves full-time to their babies.

Their mothers and mothers-in-law would strongly disapprove if they left their babies in day care or with baby sitters and they could not expect the fathers, who came home late, to help with the baby. They would have to see the children through their childish ailments, without much help but with lots of criticism from the older generation. When the children went to school, it would be the mothers’ job to supervise the children’s homework and push them through their examinations.

Bringing up and educating children is expensive everywhere, but especially in Japan. Mothers would have to skimp and save to cover these costs. Fathers, who would have to have enough pocket money to cover their costs of bonding sessions with their colleagues in bars, would be there only at weekends and for special events.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that Japan’s reproduction rate continues to fall. Japanese companies are not making proper use of an important and intelligent section of the population. This and Japanese social attitudes are largely responsible for exacerbating Japan’s falling birthrate.

Instead of reactionary politicians calling for Japanese women to stay at home and bring up babies, the Japanese government should look long and hard at ways of bolstering equal opportunities for women and ensuring that better child-care facilities are made available. The creation of more and better tax breaks for mothers and the introduction of paid maternity leave should be high priorities for the next Japanese government. Japanese women should be more militant in defense of their rights.

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