Commentary / Japan

Preventing issue fatigue on womenomics

by Yumiko Murakami

Womenomics was once a significant topic of discussion for the government when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power six years ago. In fact, the Abe administration declared womenomics to be one of the pillars of its growth strategies to boost the economy. These days, however, it seems as if the government would rather sweep it under the rug and turn a blind eye to what was once a top-priority issue. The latest Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum released last month has confirmed, once again, that scant progress has been made by Japan for gender equality, but not much fuss has been made about Japan’s pitiful 110th ranking. The muted reaction to this poor report card on the part of Japanese politicians and business executives is revealing. How can we fight “issue fatigue” and keep Japanese leaders cognizant of the need to advance womenomics?

International studies suggest the most formidable challenge for Japan is a lack of female leadership in both politics and business. Even though women’s labor market participation has improved considerably over recent years, catching up with the majority of the developed economies, Japan still has the third highest gender gap in terms of wages among OECD members at 25.7 percent.

The income discrepancy is attributed to a scant presence of women in senior positions. Women’s share of seats on the boards of listed companies, for example, stands below 4 percent in Japan, while it’s over 20 percent in most European and North American countries. The government has set a target of 10 percent for female board members by 2020, but the 4 percent figure suggests their official goal is nothing more than a publicity stunt.

One of the main reasons why people disengage from pursuing a cause is the perception that their efforts are in vain and no progress is evident. This probably describes the state of mind of many leaders when it comes to gender equality. Japanese policymakers should remind themselves that plenty of other countries, including the Scandinavian nations, were male-dominated societies several decades ago. Due to effective policies and structural reforms, which were often accompanied by pain, many of these countries now have advanced, healthy and fair gender equality. There is no reason why Japan can’t do the same.

One promising development is the pressure being put on companies by capital markets to take the issue seriously. Large U.S. institutional investors such as State Street and Black Rock have started to demand the companies they invest in to meet diversity requirements at the board levels. The Corporate Governance Code set out by the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Financial Services Agency was revised last year to stipulate that at least one female board member is expected to be in position at every listed company. One woman on a board may not sound like an ambitious target, but in a country where 60 percent of the companies have all-male boards, securing one female executive for the board of every company will be no easy task.

The role of capital markets may prove effective to prevent the ” issue fatigue” phenomena as stock prices are an objective and immediate reflection of investors’ assessment on companies. In this context, the ESG fund launched by the Government Pension Investment Fund is worth watching closely. Among several selection criteria, the GPIF has decided to include gender equality as one of the screening requirements for the fund. Following the GPIF fund launch, several similar financial products have been introduced by other asset management companies. With this type of stewardship from investors, companies may be able to more easily align gender diversity with corporate value enhancement.

Addressing gender equality in politics is an even more daunting task than in business. Promoting a campaign for “advancing women,” Abe hand-picked five female ministers for his Cabinet in 2014. Four years later, just one woman is included in the current Abe Cabinet. The 2018 Gender Gap survey by the World Economic Forum was carried out before the number of female ministers dropped from two to one in a Cabinet reshuffle following Abe’s re-election as Liberal Democratic Party chief in September. It’s a reasonable assumption to anticipate a further drop in the next survey, unless Abe gets his act together quickly.

The Upper House election this coming summer will test the effectiveness of the newly enacted legislation on gender equality in politics. The new law calls for balanced gender representation among candidates fielded by political parties in elections. Since the law has no binding force and each party is expected to make voluntary efforts to achieve gender equality in their candidates, the nationwide series of local elections in April as well as the Upper House race will serve as an important measurement to gender equality. Today, Japan has one of the most male-dominated parliaments in the world with a 9 to 1 male-to-female ratio of parliamentarians.

Depending on the outcome of this year’s elections, Japan may find itself with no realistic options but to consider affirmative action if the new legislation with no enforceable penalties fails to promote a fair gender balance in public office. Affirmative action to advance gender equality has both pros and cons. The reality is, however, most countries with better gender equality have implemented some variation of affirmative action.

The most critical message that should be heard in Japan is that gender equality is an economic issue that helps both men and women live better lives. If anyone believes that “money talks,” it should be no surprise to anyone that gender equality allows a profitable outcome for all concerned. Fortunately for us, sufficient evidence has been collected to prove that better gender balance translates into better business. Better gender balance in governments also translates to higher trust in it. There are only upsides to pursuing gender equality.

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.