For women in Saudi Arabia, 2017 may be remembered as an epic year for gender equality. The announcement of a royal decree allowing women to drive for the first time in history is a significant symbolic event to promote women’s advancement.
Saudi women have achieved impressive progress in their academic performance over the recent decades, with their literacy rate reaching over 90 percent from a mere 2 percent in the 1970s. Today, women constitute over 50 percent of university graduates in the kingdom, and yet a very small percentage of these highly educated women are seen in the workplace, where a strict interpretation of Islamic law is enforced. With the lifting of the driving ban, opportunities for societal advances for women and the economic contributions resulting from them are expected to be exponentially bigger.
The news from Saudi Arabia seems like deja vu to many Japanese women who had thought they would be moving from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat in the Japanese economy and society in 1986. That was the year the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was enacted, finally allowing women to obtain professional positions called sogoshoku (career-track jobs) in private-sector companies.
Just like Saudi women today, Japanese women were already highly educated by the 1980s, but employment opportunities in companies were limited to administrative and support roles. Women were often labeled “copy makers and tea makers” — female workers serving their male counterparts. With the introduction of equal employment law, female university students began to be invited to participate in the same recruiting process as male students and some of them started to win career-track jobs with large companies. As a college student, I remember the thrill of seeing the same jobs advertised for both males and females at the career guidance office on campus. “The world is our oyster,” Japanese women thought. It was a truly exciting time for us.
So much for the fanfare of 30 years ago. Japan still struggles with its poor report card of gender equality today. The latest OECD gender report this month pointed out that Japanese women suffer from one of the worst gender wage gaps in developed economies, earning 25.7 percent less than men. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which made “womenomics” one of the pillars for the nation’s growth strategies, has increased child care facilities, allowing mothers to work more easily. Sure enough, the share of women in the labor market has been steadily growing and it is now higher than that of the United States.
The challenge, however, is a near complete absence of women in senior leadership positions in business and politics. Despite a strong push from the government, female board executives at publicly listed companies stand at a mere 3.4 percent, compared with the average of 20 percent among OECD countries. Women who joined companies in career-track positions in the late 1980s would have reached executive levels by now had they stayed with their companies, but nearly all have opted out.
Often, pull factors such as child care are cited as the main reasons for women dropping out of the labor market, but surveys show push factors are responsible for discouraging more female workers. These women feel their potential is limited and the resulting frustration felt at work drives them out of their jobs. The 1986 legislation might have improved the legal framework for female workers, but it has not been accompanied by an actual change in the corporate and societal culture that embraces gender diversity in its essence.
Young female employees are often asked by their managers what they are going to do if and when they get pregnant. It is disheartening to hear about matahara, the Japanese word for maternity harassment, which still takes place at a number of Japanese companies.
Business leaders should be reminded that it is not a coincidence that companies with reasonable female presence at senior levels often demonstrate the ability to hire non-Japanese executives as well. In the global war for talent, the corporate culture to embrace diversity including gender, nationality, religion and sexual orientation is one of the critical determining factors for survival.
Perhaps a genuine sense of urgency to promote women was not easy to feel three decades ago, when mighty Japanese exporters were taking over world markets and domestic consumption was experiencing exuberant strength. In a booming economy, aspirations for an egalitarian society tend to be born out of people’s desire to achieve civil and moral gains. Unfortunately for Japan, this aspiration was not strong enough to make headway with gender equality during the bubble boom.
Today, with a more fragile economy hampered by a declining population, the motivation to promote women is becoming an economic necessity. To put it more bluntly, it is born out of economic desperation. Japan Inc. does not have a rabbit to pull out of its hat at this point — apart from unleashing highly skilled and educated women. Companies that can implement gender diversity at all levels are the ones with the best chances to change Japan’s economic trajectory by deviating from a one-dimensional, male-dominant corporate culture.
This time is different, as Japan does not have the luxury of waiting three decades. Over the next 30 years, the nation’s population will be sinking below the 100 million level from the current population of 127 million, with a third of Japanese being over 65 years old.
Women dressed in “abayas” will be soon driving the streets of Riyadh. They may be soon sent to boardrooms of Saudi corporations to help transform the oil-dependent economy into an innovative, knowledge-based economy. Isn’t it time for Japanese corporations to wake up and smell the coffee, instead of the tea made by their female employees?
Yumiko Murakami is head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, where she engages in policy discussions between the OECD and governments, businesses and academia in Japan and Asia, covering a wide range of economic policy issues.
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