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It takes more than words to raise gender equality

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It was supposed to be a shining moment for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the podium at the World Assembly for Women (WAW!), a conference focusing on “A society where women shine.” Next to Abe on stage stood Ivanka Trump in a pink dress, glancing over her host with a polite smile. “Since I took the office five years ago, over 1.5 million women have started working. I am pleased to report the Japanese women’s labor market participation rate has now exceeded that of the United States,” boasted the prime minister.

Unfortunately for Abe, his statement rang a bit hollow. Hours before his speech, the World Economic Forum announced Japan’s gender gap ranking has slipped from last year’s 111th to 114th, out of 144 countries. While the Abe administration has been busy sending more women to the labor market over the last five years, Japan’s report card on the gender index has plunged more than dozen spots from the 101th in 2012. To rub salt in the wound, the main reason for this year’s deterioration was a poor showing in political appointments, which one could argue is Abe’s stomping ground. Out of 20 ministers handpicked by Abe for his latest Cabinet, after his Liberal Democratic Party’s landslide win in the October general election, there were only two women. This is down more than by half, compared to 2014, when the Cabinet had five female ministers — and therefore closer to the government’s target of women taking up 30 percent of management positions.

To be fair, Japan’s gender equality has been making progress in the economic empowerment category, even though the speed of change has been painfully slow. The absence of female leaders in politics, on the other hand, seems to be left largely untouched. Currently, Japan is placed at a staggering 123rd in political empowerment, one notch above Saudi Arabia and below countries such as Botswana, Cambodia and even South Korea. Yet, not much is being discussed to rectify this highly embarrassing situation.

Abe, being the ultimate male champion for womenomics, has done more than any of his predecessors to increase female political participation. However, the challenge for him is obvious: a sheer lack of a pipeline of experienced female parliamentarians in the Diet, as well as within the ruling LDP.

After the third Cabinet reshuffle under the current Abe administration, there were hardly any women Diet members left with an adequate numbers of electoral victories under their belts and would thus be deemed qualified for ministerial positions. Consistent with everything else in Japan, the world of politics is ruled by seniority. Any Diet members eyeing seats in the Cabinet are expected to have won a minimum five elections for the Lower House or three for the Upper House. Some 60 Diet members from the LDP, who meet or exceed this seniority requirement, are reportedly “wait-listed” for ministerial positions. Not surprisingly, this list is almost entirely male. When merely 10 percent of the Lower House members are women and most of them are not even passing the seniority test, how can the prime minister create a gender-balanced Cabinet?

Considering how dire the gender balance situation is in Japanese politics today, it is mind-boggling that the topic of quotas is not being discussed seriously. There is no guarantee a quota system will work effectively in Japan. However, there are as many, if not more, reasons for a quote system to succeed rather than fail. It’s enough to say a quota system deserves serious consideration, especially when no other solutions can be found. Quota systems can come in a variety of forms. Some are legally binding and others are purely voluntary. Quotas can apply to candidates, to parties or to parliamentary seats. Many countries have experienced growing pains with quotas while others have adopted them more smoothly. It is not the magic recipe by any means, but it is a viable option we must consider.

At the end of the day, we all know gender parity is not the ultimate goal of Abe. Nor should it be. Whether it be feminine or masculine, young or old, whatever profile his Cabinet may have, the prime minister should strive to build a government in which people have the utmost trust. Gender parity is an effective means to make the government appear more trustworthy. OECD studies show a positive correlation between trust in government and female minister ratios.

On the WAW! stage, Abe proudly stated how the Japanese economy has flourished under his leadership and that companies are reporting all-time-high earnings this year. He concluded his speech by suggesting gender parity can be achieved within the next 10 years in Japan. But for Japanese women who struggle to break the glass ceiling both in business and politics, they will no longer believe in speeches — they will only believe in results. There exists long-simmering resentment over how much lip service has been paid with little action. It is a plain fact Japan’s gender gaps in income and leadership have stubbornly remained, even though more women are working today compared with 10 years ago. Actions, more than words, will demonstrate whether the prime minister truly “gets it.” Failure to deliver on his promises could soon lead to diminished confidence in political leadership.

Trust in government has been collapsing around the world and we have witnessed grave consequences. For Japan to stay an anomaly in this age of distrust, Abe has only one option. That is to act now.

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.