Editorials

Women still can't reach potential

That the number of women with jobs topped 30 million in June — the first time this has happened since the government started taking relevant data under the current format in 1953 — marks yet another milestone in women’s growing participation in the labor market. Of the total workforce of 67.47 million, up by 600,000 from a year ago, women numbered 30.03 million, an increase of 530,000.

The fact that female workers accounted for nearly 90 percent of the increase underlines the increasing role of women to sustain the nation’s workforce numbers as the labor supply continues to tighten amid the graying and declining population. In June, 71.3 percent of women in the primary working age from 15 to 64 had jobs, up 1.9 percentage points from a year earlier.

But the labor statistics and other data also show that hurdles remain to fully realizing the labor potential of women, such as the steep gender gap in terms of wages, the relegation to irregular jobs such as part-time positions and the lack of promotion to leadership roles. It’s still unclear whether women’s growing presence in the labor market has been accompanied by efforts to create a better environment for them to pursue a career while giving birth and raising children, and to adequately evaluate workers’ skills and performance irrespective of gender.

Among employed workers, 77.9 percent of men are hired as regular full-time employees and 23.1 percent have an irregular status, such as part time, contract or temporary dispatch staff. That contrasts with 45 percent of women in regular full-time jobs and 55 percent with an irregular status. Women account for nearly 70 percent of irregular workers, who have come to occupy 40 percent of the nation’s workforce.

But the data also show that more women are being recruited for full-time positions as employers increasingly tap the pool of women amid the intensifying labor shortage. In June, the number of women holding irregular jobs increased by 190,000 from a year ago, but the rise was outnumbered by women with regular full-time jobs, who increased by 280,000. That contrasts with the situation in 2018, when women in full-time jobs increased by 240,000 while those holding irregular jobs surged by 620,000 from the previous year.

In the past, the dip in labor participation by women in their 30s and 40s as compared to those in other age groups — because they quit their jobs to raise children and later return to the workforce — was deemed symbolic of the structural problems that hamper women’s greater labor participation. However, that dip is no longer as steep as it used to be.

Other aspects of women’s labor participation are much slower to change, such as the steep wage gap between male and female workers. A 2018 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry shows that women’s average wage level stood at 73.3 to 100 for men — improved from 67.8 in 2008 but changed little from 73.4 in 2017.

According to another labor ministry report, women accounted for 11.8 percent of management positions in companies in 2018, up 0.3 points from the previous year but still a far cry from the government’s target of boosting the ratio of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020.

The ratio of women in management positions is even lower among larger companies — only 7.1 percent among corporations with at least 5,000 employees each.

The International Labor Organization says Japan ranks the lowest among the Group of Seven major industrialized countries in terms of the share of women in managerial positions. Japan’s figure has made little improvement from 8.4 percent in 1991 and remains well below the global average of 27.1 percent.

Japan also lags far behind other advanced economies in terms of the share of women in executive positions at big companies — at a mere 3.4 percent against 37 percent in France and 16.4 percent in the United States.

The ILO calls for institutional measures like a quota system to set aside certain portions of managerial and executive positions to women in order to promote gender equality in the workforce.

The nation’s rapidly aging and falling population makes it essential that, to maintain a vibrant economy, the limited labor force can unleash its full potential irrespective of gender. Sustained efforts must be made to remove hurdles to women playing greater roles in the workforce.

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