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Most disappointingly, Japan — the world’s No. 3 economy — was ranked among the most unequal countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, coming at 121st out of 153 countries. It is this nation’s worst showing since the annual report was first published in 2006.

The situation has gradually improved since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to have women occupy 30 percent of leadership positions in every business field by 2020 under the slogan “a society where women can shine.” Yet the pace of reform is slow compared with what’s happening in other nations, so it comes as little surprise that Japan’s ranking is so low. The government must work harder to narrow the gender gap.

In the past few years many countries have made remarkable achievements in the empowerment of women. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern became the second elected leader in the world to give birth while in office, following Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1990. This month Finland elected the world’s youngest prime minister, Sanna Marin, 34, and women outnumber men in her Cabinet.

In Japan, political parties tried to field more female candidates in the Upper House election in July following the enactment of a law in May 2018 urging political parties to equalize the number of male and female candidates, and women accounted for a record high 28.1 percent of all candidates. Unfortunately, only 15 percent of the Liberal Democratic Party’s candidates were women — a result that reflects the nonbinding nature of the law.

Japan’s low ranking this year in the WEF index is due in particular to low scores in the field of economic opportunities and political representation. The report acknowledges that Japan’s economic gender gap has narrowed slightly, but it still lags far behind other countries at 115th. In the field of political empowerment, it ranks 144th. While female lawmakers make up 10.11 percent of the Lower House, the world average is 25. 2 percent. Moreover, the Abe government only had one female minister for a year, from Oct. 2, 2018, through Sept. 11 this year.

This gender imbalance has serious consequences. Having fewer women in leadership positions, especially in politics, means fewer policy measures to correct the disparity because male leaders lack strong incentives to change the status quo. Moreover, not utilizing half of the country’s talent takes a toll on economic growth and competitiveness, and widens the pay gap between men and women. This financial disparity hits single mothers especially hard, which exacerbates child poverty and can foster social unrest.

One example where female lawmakers bring benefits to society can be seen in a measure included in the tax reform policy for fiscal 2020 that was recently adopted by the ruling coalition. Currently only parents who have divorced or who have had a spouse die qualify for preferential tax treatment. But under the measure adopted last week, single parents who have never married and have an annual income of ¥5 million or less will also qualify for special tax deductions. While often discussed in the past, the measure was finally adopted this year thanks to a strong push by a group of female lawmakers. By bringing more women into politics long dominated by male politicians, diverse views that cater to various social needs will be reflected in the nation’s policymaking process.

Japan also lags far behind other countries in the business sector, especially at the senior level. Data for 2017 from the OECD show that many European countries are increasing the number of women in boardrooms. In France, women make up 43.4 percent of company boards of directors, followed by Iceland’s rate of 43 percent. But women made up only 5.3 percent of boards of directors in Japanese firms. Because there aren’t many women in Japan who are senior enough to serve as a board member, female board members often concurrently serve as outside board directors for multiple companies.

The latest WEF report also reveals that the greatest challenge to closing the economic gender gap worldwide is the under-representation of women in emerging industries such as cloud computing, big data and artificial intelligence. For example, just 12 percent of professionals in cloud computing are women. Unless policymakers take action to equip young women with skills to succeed in such fields, gender parity won’t be achieved.

As long as policy measures to empower females are not mandatory, the situation surrounding women will only improve slowly. The people and the media have a responsibility to monitor progress on this front and if targets are not met they should harshly criticize and pressure the government to implement necessary measures to close the gender gap.

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