The Swiss-based nonprofit World Economic Forum recently released its Gender Gap Report for 2013, in which Japan ranked 105 out of 136 countries — a plunge of 25 places from its ranking when the report was inaugurated in 2006. South Korea rates even worse, coming in at 111 in 2013, down from 92nd place in 2006.

With both Japan and Korea being in the bottom third of countries surveyed, it would seem their employment systems aren’t working very well for women by any measure, as both feature a wide gender-based wage gap, glass ceilings, marginalization in the workforce and low fertility — the latter a key factor in the rapid aging of both societies.

The failure to support working women is also saddling both countries with gathering fiscal problems by depressing tax revenues, pension and medical-insurance contributions and limiting economic growth.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind an important clarification accompanying the WEF report, which states: “The index is designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries rather than the actual levels of the available resources and opportunities in those countries.”

So the rankings don’t suggest that Japanese and Korean women should be packing their bags and moving to top-rated Iceland, with its haunting landscapes and abundant hot springs, or to higher-ranked developing nations such as the Philippines (5th) or Mozambique (26th), where resources and opportunities are constrained by poverty.

Nonetheless, the rankings for Japan and Korea do indicate that something is wrong, because being a woman in either country is demonstrably a career handicap.

In both countries, the overall gender wage gap is massive. In Japan, women’s estimated income is only 57 percent that of men, while men’s wages are an eye-popping 38 percent higher than women’s for similar work. It’s worse in Korea, where women’s estimated income is just 44 percent of men’s, while men’s wages are a staggering 48 perent higher than women’s for similar work.

In both countries, too, low fertility rates are clear barometers of the cost of penalizing women: 1.41 in Japan and 1.3 in Korea. Women in Japan are entitled to 14 weeks of maternity leave at 30 percent of pay, and an additional 10 percent of pre-leave wages for the duration of leave taken as a reengagement benefit.

In Korea, there is a relatively generous provision of maternity leave for 90 days at 100 percent of pay. But in both countries, more than 60 percent of women quit their jobs after giving birth, representing a considerable loss of experience and skills.

Japan also suffers a brain drain of talented women, especially because those who have studied overseas are generally keen to work for foreign firms due to the culture shock of adjusting to Japan’s patriarchal corporate culture.

Foreign managers of firms operating in Japan tell me they eagerly recruit Japanese women because they have better critical thinking, intercultural and language skills than male counterparts. These managers see Japan Inc.’s self-inflicted wound as their gain.

What can be done? Earlier this year, the government in Seoul boosted the budget for promoting gender equality by 20 percent, with the Ministry of Gender Equality allocating the biggest increase to improved child-care support — up 53 percent — in order to expand after-school child care for elementary school children. They can now receive 720 hours of this service per annum, half as much again as the previous limit. This program helps working women balance work and childrearing, because public day-care hours do not stretch as long as the working day.

In Korea, though, things are set to get even better following a recent announcement that the gender-equality budget will be raised by a whopping 68 percent in 2014, to $21 billion, in order to improve overall welfare conditions and economic participation by women. This will fund a further 18 percent increase in spending on child-care programs and initiatives targeting violence against women and single mothers.

Throwing money at the problems may not solve them, but the government in Seoul is pulling out all the stops to improve the situation for working women — and it’s doing it now.

Among these measures are ones to address the problem of glass ceilings. As Machiko Osawa, director of the Research Institute for Women and Career Advancement at Japan Women’s University (full disclosure — she is my wife), says, “Since 2006 the Korean government and large firms have taken various steps to improve women’s managerial career prospects and encourage them to not abandon their careers after giving birth.

“There is a sense of urgency and recognition that doing so is logical and necessary.”

Japan is cottoning on, but belatedly. Osawa adds, “While Korea relies on affirmative action by setting targets to achieve women’s advancement in management, this has not been adopted in Japan.

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made lots of encouraging promises, and the wind seems to be blowing in the right direction, but based on past experience (of unrealized promises) there is lots of skepticism.”

In other words, pronouncements await resolute action. It is thus welcome news that sometime in 2014 the government plans to boost child-care leave benefits to 67 percent of salary for the first six months and 50 percent for the subsequent six months.

Abe says that “women are Japan’s most underused resource” — but tapping their potential requires implementing various measures.

Among these, Osawa argues that the oft-quoted shortage of day-care provision is not the only obstacle, as mothers of young children are a small percentage of the female workforce.

In fact the lifecycle needs of working mothers change; as children grow older they need support in terms of flexible schedules — and husbands who contribute more to household tasks. But, according to Osawa, the “mommy track” can derail careers, pushing women executives into less demanding roles with regular hours that don’t tap their accumulated skills or nurture career growth. This requires adopting more creative human-resource policies.

But the changing employment paradigm is hitting women hard.

Osawa comments, “Abenomics ignores widening disparities between non-regular workers (now 38 percent of the entire workforce) and regular workers. About 30 percent of female university graduates have non-regular jobs and more than half of all working women are non-regular workers. So as long as this disparity problem is not addressed, the gender gap will widen. The shrinking core workforce of regular workers comes at the expense of women workers who are finding it harder to enter career-track jobs.”

Despite claims to the contrary, “Abenomics” is not yet “womenomics.” Policymakers should heed the conclusion of the WEF’s 2013 Gender Gap Report, which notes “a strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its national competitiveness.”

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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