Commentary / Japan

How Japan can fix its gaping gender gap

by Haruaki Deguchi

The World Economic Forum’s 2017 gender gap index ranks Japan 114th out of the 144 countries surveyed. Such a low ranking concerning women’s status in society is quite shameful for the world’s third-largest economy in terms of gross domestic product. The main reason for this poor performance is clear — the rate of women’s participation in politics remains too low.

It is perhaps our country that has the greatest need to introduce a quota system like France’s 2000 parity law, which stipulates that elections must have an equal number of female and male candidates. But demands for adopting such a system — which would be reasonable and natural — are rarely heard in Japan. Let us look at this deep-rooted problem from the viewpoint of feminism.

What is feminism? Generally speaking, it is a belief that both women and men should have equal rights and opportunities in the real world. It is also the idea that men and women should be equal politically, economically and socially.

The keyword is equality. There are two types of equality — formal and mechanical equality, and substantive equality. In European countries, a quota system is commonly used. It is designed to affirmatively rectify gaps in order to prevent inequality between men and women in policy decision-making, so as to ultimately eliminate harmful effects from lingering gender-based discrimination. Laws have been established to specify the percentage of female candidates running in elections or delist companies from stock exchanges if women do not account for a certain ratio of their executive board members.

There is an argument that a quota system represents reverse discrimination, but I do not think so. Realizing true equality between men and women is a noble cause, but in reality, gender-based discrimination continues to exist. A quota system is a practical and effective means of narrowing this gap. This is why these systems have been widely adopted in Europe.

In form, a quota system may appear to run counter to the principle of equality. But in substance, it should be deemed to be in agreement with the principle. Equality should not be an absolute idea, but a relative concept that corresponds to the situation of individual societies.

Let us discuss work-style reform, a major policy agenda for Japan, from the viewpoint of feminism. The major premise is that people have fundamental, biological differences, as shown by menstruation and childbirth. It is only natural that these differences should be taken into account. One must not discriminate against women because of these differences.

In Japan, women returning to work after child care leave often have their career path suspended or are demoted to lower positions. France prohibits such practices by law, and the child care leave is treated as a period in which the employees are deemed to have continued working.

Raising a child is indeed hard work. One should think that after child care leave, employees come back to the workplace wiser than before — just like employees who return to work after studying abroad. It is even reasonable to promote them to more senior positions.

Even today, some media reports in Japan pose the question of whether one should choose career or children. Many other advanced countries have introduced policy measures to support both career-building and child-rearing as a matter of fact. “Both career and children” has become the social norm in those countries, many of which are achieving a V-shaped recovery in their fertility rates.

An ideal society should enable people to have children when they wish. This is the kind of society that we should seek to create. As a matter of policy, it is simple. Because the time when a woman wants to give birth and raise a child may not coincide with when she has sufficient economic power, the government only has to fill the gap by providing her with financial support. That’s exactly what France is doing.

There won’t be any additional worry if there are enough nursery schools for all children without keeping them on a waiting list. Japan is abolishing and integrating elementary and junior high schools in the face of the declining number of children. I don’t understand why redundant classrooms cannot be converted into nursery schools. If the government deems it an obligation to provide day care for children for all parents who want it, the problem of children on waiting lists to enter nursery schools will be quickly resolved.

France has a well-known three-point principle introduced by President Jacques Chirac: that women can have children when they want to, that no children are put on a waiting list, and that a woman’s career path cannot be suspended due to childbirth and child rearing. It is widely known that thanks to this principle, the fertility rate in France recovered by more than 0.4 points in just about a decade to around 2.0.

If the Japanese government adopts a rational policy by taking into account the biological differences between men and women, then an ideal work-style policy would be to pursue a nationality-free, gender-free and age-free policy. A human resources staffer at Google once told me that the company has deleted not only nationality, gender and age data but also face photos of the employees from its personnel affairs data — because it is sufficient for the company to know the employees’ career history, present job and their future career hopes. I think it’s the right policy.

Once, when I was invited by a major Japanese firm to lecture at a study and training session, a participant raised a question — what advice would I give the employee who had just been tapped as manager of a section that has many female workers on how to treat the women well. My answer was, you should turn in a letter of resignation, because somebody who considers men and women separately should not become a manager.

In the past, orchestras in the United States were predominantly male, with females making up less than 5 percent of the musicians in the top five orchestras in 1970. In the 1970s and 1980s, most orchestras adopted a “blind audition,” where candidates would play behind a screen and out of sight of the judges. As a result, these orchestras saw their number of female performers climb to 25 percent by the late 1990s, and even beyond that today. Blind auditions have had a positive impact on minority representation in orchestras as well. This shows that unconscious discrimination and prejudice are more deep-rooted than one can imagine. This is also why Google deleted the face photos of its employees.

I hope that feminism can include taking action in daily life that consciously debunks and abolishes traditionally accepted but problematic ideas like these. Unless people’s way of thinking is fundamentally changed, it will be hard to expect a substantial improvement in the social position of women in this country.

Haruaki Deguchi is president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and the author of more than 30 books, Deguchi worked at Nippon Life Insurance Co. for almost 35 years before founding Lifenet Insurance in 2008.