Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sudden call at the end of last month for closing of all schools nationwide to contain the COVID-19 outbreak has brought great confusion to officials, teachers and parents of schoolchildren. But media reports, especially TV news coverage, appeared to give an impression that only women are in trouble due to the school shutdowns. Isn’t that strange?
The media coverage of the issue seemed to be stuck with a biased view that mothers have to take care of children who cannot go to school and that they, therefore, have to stay away from work. A woman working for a media company said that the upper echelons of the news program production think it was a problem that only affected women.
Japan’s media industry is as devoid of diversity as the government. Key Tokyo-based TV stations effectively have no women supervising the actual scenes of reporting and program production, according to the Women’s Conference of Commercial Broadcasting. Women account for only slightly less than 20 percent of all the employees of these broadcasters. The ratio falls down to about 9 percent as far as employees engaged in news reporting are concerned. In short, only men decide what is newsworthy and what should be reported. This situation breeds the risk of homogeneity.
What will happen at workplaces if people are exposed to TV news coverage of the issue showing that only women are in trouble?
When a retail shop made a list of employees with children who go to elementary schools, it reportedly excluded male workers. It should have covered all employees — men or women — on the list to see how many workers have such schoolchildren.
One woman is said to have had a strange feeling when a male colleague with a child of similar age to hers told her that working mothers must be having a hard time — she wondered why the problem is viewed as exclusively women’s. Announcements on free online education service or lunch delivery for schoolchildren are made toward “mothers in trouble.”
What’s important in an emergency like the COVID-19 outbreak is how to prioritize the resources to areas where they’re most needed. The top priority must go to people with jobs that sustain the social infrastructure — that is, those on the front lines of medical services, nursing care for the elderly, child care and so on. And many of the sectors that meet the urgent needs of society rely heavily on women workers.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, women accounted for 92.8 percent and men 7.8 percent of the 1.218 million nurses employed as of the end of 2018. Operations at medical institutions would be disrupted if many of these women take time off from their jobs.
In Hokkaido, whose government decided to close all schools when the prefecture was faced with a sudden surge in the COVID-19 infections in late February, many nurses reportedly were unable to come to work because they had to care for their children. One local hospital had to suspend seeing regular outpatients except for those who had made appointments and emergency cases when it learned that some 170 nurses, or more than 20 percent of its staff, would be absent from work.
Hiroshima Prefecture, in weighing the closure of local schools, decided to enable parents who have children with disabilities and those who work at medical institutions and for other social infrastructure job to send their children in lower grades to children’s clubs or elementary schools. The secretariat of the prefecture’s board of education is headed by Rie Hirakawa, one of the four women in such a position across the country.
What should people in this situation do for now? Not just women but men ought to take time off from work or work from home if they can. Companies should make it easier for their employees to take time off if their spouses engage in medical and social infrastructure jobs. There must be lots of non-urgent work that would have little impact on society if it was suspended for a week.
Women in Japan may not hold many decision-making positions, but the nation’s social infrastructure will no longer be sustained without them. Women uphold the foundations of medical, nursing care and child care services. If the decision-makers think that the absence of women alone from work will have no negative impact, then their decisions are heavily gender-biased.
That leads to the question of whether society can be sustained if women stop going to work. A past experience in a northern European country shows how working women play crucial roles in underpinning society. In October 1975, women in Iceland — today ranked No. 1 in terms of gender equality — went on a general strike in protest against gender disparity in the country, with 90 percent of working women boycotting their jobs. What happened then? Schools, day-care centers for children, banks, factories and shops had to be closed, forcing the fathers to have to take their children to their companies.
What’s scary about decisions made in a highly homogeneous environment lacking in diversity is that the decision-makers tend to overlook important points that cause problems for the socially weak. Not just the mass media but Japan’s society as a whole lacks enough women among decision makers. How many women were involved in the latest decision to close all schools nationwide? Were men with small children whose wives also have jobs involved at all in the decision?
Only after the decision was made, a group of female lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party called on the government to take steps to deal with the problems that the decision would cause for the socially weak, such as a loss of income for people with irregular jobs or single parents, and to make sure that both parents would equally share taking care of the children at home.
Decisions made in a highly homogeneous environment are highly likely to miss very important points which, in a crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak, can lead to serious problems such as a breakdown in medical services. And it tends to be the weak members of society who pay the price for the problems.
What was good about decisions made by Taiwan in dealing with the new coronavirus outbreak is that sufficient attention was paid to the socially weak. When the Taiwanese government decided to close its schools, it also made clear that parents who will face difficulty if their children’s schools are closed and those who have children with disabilities can ask for leave from work — and that employers that refuse to give paid holidays to such parents would be punished.
While Taiwan’s schools have since been reopened, the consideration given to the weak members of society appears to have left the people feeling secure. It is no coincidence that Taiwan is led by a female president, Tsai Ing-wen, whose government has fairly diverse members including 38-year-old Digital Minister Audrey Tang.
The lack of attention Japan has given to diversity or gender equality was exposed in its response to the COVID-19 emergency. In making crucial decisions, the government needs to check whether the policies are gender-biased or are being made in a setting lacking in diversity. Leaders who make important decisions are urged to keep that in mind.
Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and an author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.
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