Married women want to work, according to a government survey that will form the basis for a 2012 white paper on children, child rearing and mothers. The survey results, released early, show an astounding 86 percent of women want to continue working after having children, though most find it almost impossible to do so. Only 11.6 percent indicated they do not wish to seek employment.

Of women aged 20 to 49 with children under 19, the survey found that 45.3 percent said they wish to work part time and that 25.8 percent would like to become regular employees. Another 14.9 percent wanted to work part time at first and later as regular employees. The gap between wanting to work and being employed, though, is vast.

The Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2010 noted that the total labor force participation rate, which includes all workers from age 15 to 70, was 71.6 percent for men and 48.5 percent for women.

Most women said they wanted to start working again as soon as possible after giving birth, though they were keenly aware of the importance of being with their young children. The largest percentage of mothers, 23.8 percent, said they wanted to start work again as soon as possible. Another 22.1 percent said they would prefer to wait until their children enter kindergarten or nursery school, and another 20 percent said they would like to start after their children enter elementary school.

This desire to work indicates that half of Japan’s workforce is woefully underutilized. Japan’s looming demographic and economic crises would be eased by fuller participation of women. The road to employ more women is not an easy one, but the process can be hastened with specific measures.

Companies should be more flexible to accommodate women taking care of children. The refusal of many companies to allow flex-time, convenient working hours, telecommuting or emergency time off to take care of children is more than just a tradition-bound, business-as-usual mindset. That inflexibility is the central obstacle to women’s employment.

In simple terms, women need to leave the workplace to pick up their kids from school and daycare centers, and take care of them at home. Several hours of childcare will not interfere with total working hours if companies find ways to accommodate their female employees.

The government should help by bolstering the nation’s childcare system. With increased subsidies and assistance to childcare centers, women would be given help with the important duty of childrearing. Company flexibility is essential.

A study last year by the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank in New York, found that Japanese women with college degrees were much more likely than Americans to quit their jobs voluntarily (74 percent in Japan versus 31 percent in America and 34 percent in Germany).

Some 68 percent of Japanese women said they preferred to work at multinational companies because they are more women-friendly than Japanese firms.

Japanese women who do quit work find it difficult to return. Few companies are willing to rehire women for the same positions or consider them for equivalent work after they leave for a few years to raise children.

The Center for Work-Life Policy study also found that of those Japanese women attempting to resume their careers, only 43 percent succeeded in finding a job similar to the one they left. Taking time off to raise children usually becomes the end of a career, not a temporary break in a lifetime career.

Flexibility in the workplace will translate into flexibility in adapting to economic conditions. If companies cannot innovate organizationally to find ways to solve the scheduling headaches of women employees who are raising children, how likely are they to be able to organize much more complex issues of global competition?

The future will demand more responsiveness in all areas of organization. For Japan to move forward both economically and socially, companies must organize themselves in new ways.

The government and companies also need to understand that women are more than just a solution to the demographic crisis. The problem of an aging society with a shrinking tax base is enough to warrant the accommodation of more women into the workplace.

Beyond sheer work hours, women have a lot more to contribute. Japan needs more flexibility, but also more talent. Women remain the most underused source of talent.

The answer to the famous question “What do women want?” is clear — to work. Developing more women-oriented workplaces is a tough task. Doing that is not only necessary but likely to yield tremendous benefits. Being women-oriented means also being child-oriented. It also means being human-oriented.

Japan must change its workplace to allow greater flexibility if it is going to better include half of the population in the important goal of rebuilding the economy and moving toward the future.

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