The deep-seated gender gap in politics

That Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new 19-member Cabinet has only one woman — regional revitalization minister Satsuki Katayama — is yet another reminder that his administration’s pet policy of promoting the role of women in society has had mixed results at best. The administration, whose Cabinet in 2014 featured a record five female members, has set a target of women holding 30 percent of leadership positions in business, government and political fields by 2020. But the makeup of his latest Cabinet team once again highlights that the gender gap in this country remains most entrenched in the political arena.

Legislation enacted in May with unanimous support in the Diet urged political parties to equalize “as much as possible” the number of male and female candidates they field in national and local elections — although the target is nonbinding and whether it will have any real effect in boosting the presence of women in the male-dominated political community is left up to the voluntary efforts of each party. Despite the government-set target of raising the share of women among all candidates in Diet races to 30 percent, the ratio stood at 17.7 percent in last year’s Lower House race. Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party fell behind all other major parties, with women running on the LDP ticket accounting for a mere 7.5 percent of its total.

Women account for 10.1 percent of current Lower House members. This places Japan in an embarrassing 158th place out of 193 countries (either in the lower house or a unicameral system) surveyed by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union — the lowest among Group of Seven countries and eclipsed by China and South Korea. In the face of a limited pool of female lawmakers in his party, Abe apparently chose to reward LDP factions by tapping 12 lawmakers who had never had a Cabinet portfolio — including Katayama — to his new team mostly from the groups that supported his re-election as LDP president last month.

It’s not just in the political arena that the gender gap remains wide. According to a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey, women took up a mere 11.5 percent of management positions at Japanese companies in 2017 — a 0.6 point fall from a year earlier. The ratio gets lower as the size of the company gets larger, with women accounting for a mere 6.2 percent of managers and executives at big companies with 5,000 or more employees. The figure is even lower in the government’s own workforce, with women occupying only 4.5 percent of managerial positions in the central government bureaucracy — even though national as well as local governments are said to be hiring more women.

A law implemented in 2016 to promote women’s roles in society requires firms with more than 300 employees to compile plans of action to promote their female workers to higher positions. An updated Corporate Governance Code set by the Tokyo Stock Exchange in June urges listed companies to include women on their boards of directors by calling for “gender diversity” among executives. But the 30 percent target by 2020 is still nowhere in sight.

In August, labor participation among women ages 15 to 64 reached 70 percent for the first time, a record high since comparable figures became available in 1968. The total number of women with jobs rose by 760,000 from a year earlier to 29.62 million, also the highest since 1953. The employment of women, along with the elderly, continues to increase due to robust demand amid the ever-tightening manpower shortage.

A steep gap continues to exist in working conditions between men and women, however, as the increase in the number of women on payrolls is attributed mainly to them holding low-paying irregular jobs. The ratio of women with irregular jobs among the female workforce is more than double that among men. The number of women holding irregular jobs is currently at 14.54 million, compared with 6.53 million men. Labor ministry data shows that female workers on average earn 73.4 percent of the base pay (not including overtime and other allowances) of their male counterparts — and the gender wage gap remains steep at 75.7 percent among regular full-time employees, which is attributed to the shortage of women in management jobs and the fact that women tend to stay in the job shorter than men.

The gender imbalance in this country remains the most acute among politicians. That a 19-member Cabinet has only one female member — despite the Abe administration’s much-touted bid to realize “a society where women can shine” — is symbolic of the slow progress in the efforts to boost the presence and role of women in the political sphere. To narrow the gender gap across the broad spectrum of society, politics needs to take the lead. To do that, the same old political dynamics and the mindset of politicians in Nagatacho need to change.