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Twenty years after the much heralded gender-equality law went into effect in Japan, women still face discrimination in the workplace — in ways less apparent but just as effective in limiting their promotional opportunities and so also widening the wage gap with male colleagues.

Just prior to ratifying the United Nations’ Convention to Eliminate All Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985, Japan enacted the equality law. Prompted by monitors’ reports on the convention’s implementation, a new bill intended to beef up this legislation is expected to pass the current session of the Diet.

The new bill will make it easier for women to return to work after pregnancy by prohibiting “unfavorable treatment” such as demotion or pressure to quit — unless the employer can prove that the treatment is motivated by other factors. However, it doesn’t represent a full commitment by the government to achieve real equality for women, which economists say could make a difference to Japan’s economic growth. In particular, by falling short of CEDAW recommendations for a blanket ban on all discrimination, direct or indirect, lawyers fear it may create new “loopholes” to the detriment of working women.

Although the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law has opened up career opportunities for many women in Japan, since it only applies to regular workers (seishain) — not to part-time or contract workers — it has left more than 10 million women without legal rights to equality in a country where, according to the 2003 CEDAW report, 70 percent of low-wage part-time workers are women. Indeed, a 2005 government survey shows that 52.5 percent of 21.4 million female workers in Japan are on part-time contracts compared with only 17.7 percent of 28.6 million male workers.

Although the proposed bill introduces the “penalty” of public disclosure of violators’ identities, it has no “teeth” to discourage employers from discriminating against female staff members.

Even more importantly, the proposed bill stops short of making a sweeping ban on indirect discrimination that has kept out many women from positions of responsibility and a higher pay scale. Instead, it only prohibits three specific types of indirect discrimination, such as setting physical requirements for a white collar job that only female wrestlers could meet. In effect, many lawyers say the government is actually condoning all other forms of similar discrimination as it opens the door to new ones.

At present, the limited application of the existing equality law has created a workplace class system based on employment status. Most “part-timers” in Japan are essentially full-time workers on low wages paid by the hour and are not entitled to welfare benefits. For the bulk of female Japanese workers in this category, their chances of elevation to regular status are slim. At a bank in Nagoya, for example, the monthly pay of a “part-timer” with 25 years’ experience, is a mere 83,520 yen, compared with the 566,084 yen earned by a regular male employee with the same length of service and educational background, according to a report released by the Social Democratic Party. Unsurprisingly, at this bank there are no male part-timers.

Among regulars, a dual-track career in place at many Japanese corporations means that managerial positions are open only to so-called fast-track employees, of whom, according to a recent survey, women comprise only 5 percent. Most “regular” women, therefore, are in the lower-salary, noncareer track. The new bill removes some of the artificial barriers to women applying for fast-track positions — but not all. The government backed down from a more far-reaching ban on discrimination in the face of strong opposition from employers, particularly small companies.

It should not be overlooked that successful, open-minded business leaders in Japan are ardent promoters of female empowerment, believing it is in their own interest to give opportunities to talented workers regardless of their gender. This outlook was recently reflected in a report by a U.S. investment bank that predicted higher economic growth for Japan if its female workforce was more actively utilized.

CEDAW, in its report, advocates educational programs at school to remove stereotyped images of women’s and men’s roles. Yet the government has made minimum effort to move in this direction or to raise public awareness of the U.N. covenant that has committed Japan, along with a majority of member countries, to eliminating all forms of discrimination against women.

Recently, Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault, stated publicly and unequivocally: “Companies make better decisions when women are involved in decision-making.” Perhaps this is the sort of view the government should be listening to — in shaping its policy.

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