Draft legislation prepared by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requires large companies as well as the national and local governments to set and publicly disclose targets for promoting women in their organizations beginning in fiscal 2016.

The move follows a goal Abe set in his economic growth strategy of raising the ratio of women in leading positions in society to 30 percent by 2020.

Members of the business community are said to have resisted setting a uniform target for boosting the ratio of women in management on the grounds that their ability to do so would differ between individual companies and sectors.

But the Abe administration reportedly insisted that the bill, which it hopes to get enacted in the current Diet session, will impose legal obligations on the part of businesses and government organizations to make some commitments on promoting female workers.

Behind Abe’s 30 percent target and the proposed legislation is a sense of crisis that unless it taps more women to join the labor force, Japan could face a serious shortage in the workforce due to its rapidly aging and declining population, casting doubts over the nation’s future economic growth and sustainability of its social security system.

An estimate by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry warns that the number of people with jobs could fall by up to 8.2 million by 2030 if women’s labor participation does not increase as expected. If more women join the workforce as hoped for by the government, the margin of decline would be reduced to about 1.7 million, the ministry says.

There are mixed views as to whether the legislation would in fact result in visible changes to Japan’s male-dominated corporate culture. Skeptics say the bill lacks teeth because it leaves it up to each company to determine what kind of target to set and what level of goal to aim for, making it unlikely that they would self-impose ambitious goals that radically change the status quo. Still, disclosure of the action plans by the companies with numerical targets for promoting more women to senior positions will expose their behavior to public scrutiny, and businesses with unambitious plans may face difficulties recruiting talented workers, including women.

Companies with more than 300 employees will be required to make and disclose plans with targets for the promotion of women and specific ways to achieve them. The government will later set examples on what types of targets should be set by the firms, but they may not necessarily be numerical goals for the ratio of women in management ranks. They will likely include such criteria as the proportion of women in overall hiring and the ratio of workers taking child-care leave.

While the national and local governments will come under the same obligations, smaller businesses will only be urged to make such efforts voluntarily. The government will recognize “excellent companies” that have ambitious targets and plans to introduce preferential treatment of such firms in terms of opportunities to get public works contracts.

Nearly 30 years after the law mandating equal employment opportunities for men and women was introduced in 1986, women account for just 7.5 percent of management positions in Japanese firms, far lower than the 30 to 40 percent in many other advanced economies. Women accounted for a mere 3 percent of national government employees in management positions as of October 2013, compared with 40 percent in Sweden, 33 percent in the United States and 9 percent in South Korea, according to an annual report by the National Personnel Authority. Women accounted for 26.8 percent of newly hired government workers in fiscal 2013.

A top-down approach to promoting women to management positions may be necessary to change the situation. But equally important will be more steady bottom-up efforts to remove obstacles that discourage women from maintaining their career path. According to the labor and welfare ministry, women account for roughly 40 percent of Japan’s workforce, but more than half of them are irregular employees, working part-time or as temporary dispatch staff.

About 60 percent of women leave their jobs when they have their first child. The ratio of women in regular full-time employment is the highest in the 25-to-29 age bracket. It then declines after that as many women become irregular workers. Many women quit their jobs because they think it’s too tough to work full-time while raising young children and running the household.

The government has spelled out measures to support working mothers, such as increasing the number of day-care centers for children. But also needed are steps to get men to play a greater role in child-rearing and household matters, rather than leaving it up to their wives. One major measure would be to eliminate the chronic problem of long working hours at many firms so employees can go home earlier. To this end, measures will be needed to change the mind-set of managers and employees alike — especially male workers. The government should take steps to support such efforts.

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