Japan is notorious for its depressingly low level of gender equality. According to the most recent Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum released in late March this year, Japan ranked 120th out of 156 countries, the lowest place among the other advanced counterparts in the G-7 (10). It highlights the wide gap between men and women in economic opportunities where Japan placed 117th (The World Economic Forum, 18-19). In 2015, when the government enacted a new law to promote the active engagement of women in society, Japan ranked 101st, which is much higher than its current place (The World Economic Forum, 17). This indicates that Japan has made little progress in achieving gender equality while other countries, including developing countries, have been tackling gender inequality and doing a lot better than Japan over the last five years. This paper aims to explore how women have been struggling to make a social advancement and “shine” in the workplace and present a possible way to help empower women.
Section 1: What makes it harder for women to enter the workforce in Japan?
Women currently account for less than 8 % of the executive positions even though the government set a goal of achieving 30 % of women in management posts by 2020 (Yuki). When they found it impossible to achieve the target by June last year, the government eventually decided to push back the fulfillment date of its goal to “a period as early as possible by 2030” (Hori). Women in executive positions have quadrupled to 6.2 % in listed companies over the last eight years. Even though the number has steadily risen, the figure is still quite low compared to other countries (Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office). All G-7 nations exceed 25 % except Japan. France ranks 1st at 45.2 %, having nearly seven times as many executive women as Japan, followed by Italy at 36.1 % and Germany at 35.2 % (Ito, 70). While Japan lagged in gender equality in terms of economic opportunities, the previous prime minister, Shinzo Abe, constantly tried to combat gender inequality and help women actively participate in the labor force and society during his eight-year term, promising to build a “society where women shine.” The Diet passed the Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace under his administration in 2015. This act is designed to help more women participate in the labor force. It encourages companies to present women with opportunities to get hired and promoted. It also aims to build a work environment where women can balance their work and home as they want (Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office).
With those efforts made under the Abe administration, why has Japan struggled to have more women in leadership positions though it has plenty of talented women who deserve those posts? While Mr. Abe’s efforts didn’t seem to be quite enough to help women “shine” at work, it can be attributed primarily to two reasons: the difficulty of keeping a work and home life balance and employment status. First, many women face challenges when trying to keep a work and home life balance. The traditional stereotype can explain that women should be at home or should take full responsibility for domestic duties and childrearing. Many women find it difficult to work full time while caring for their children. Indeed, 74 % of women with higher education have decided to step back from employment after marriage due to the difficulty of keeping a work and home life balance (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau). It can be assumed that some of them see removing themselves from work as “general practice” when getting married, while others quit their first jobs for pregnancy and childrearing. In other words, the majority of married women think that there is no way for them to keep working while taking care of the housework and their children. According to the survey conducted by Zhou, who used to be a senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, and now a professor studying integrated arts and social sciences, overall, one-third of women devote themselves to housework such as cooking, cleaning, and raising children because of social custom (111). His survey also reveals that husbands do about one-fifth of housework as wives (Zhou, 114). Given the results of his survey, it is certain that this custom is deeply rooted in Japanese society partly because men are less eager to share home duties, which makes it hard for married women to work full time. As a result, women must take the responsibility for most domestic duties, limiting their time and energy to work.
The limited-time can eventually restrict opportunities for women to be hired in permanent employment as they cannot work full time because of their home. Even though many women have joined the workforce since Mr. Abe took office, most of the women are categorized as non-regular workers, including those who take part-time or contract work. The government’s labor statistics show that over half of female workers were employed as non-regular in 2019, which provides women with lower wages, fewer benefits, and fewer opportunities to get a promotion. Therefore, it is reasonably assumed that it is much harder for women to attain executive positions than men as they are denied a chance to step up the career ladder leading there in the first place. Also, even if they have enough time at their disposal after their children grow up and reach a certain age, and are willing to work, they face another difficulty reentering the job market. Many companies find new male graduates preferable, and they are likely to hire them in regular employment. This is because recent graduates are expected to continue to serve their companies with loyalty until they retire. Unlike women with children, they are unlikely to quit a job because of their home life. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, companies with more employees tend to focus more on graduate recruitment than mid-career recruitment (7). The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare study also revealed that mid-career workers are less likely to achieve managerial posts. Only 4.3 % of mid-career workers are in executive positions (10). When companies are not interested in recruiting female mid-career employees and don’t appreciate their qualities, women have very few opportunities to be employed as regular workers, let alone as managers or directors.
Section 2: What can we do for more women to enter the workforce and “shine”?
While women have struggled to enter the workforce because of the limited time caused by the traditional gender norms and employment status, what can be done to remove the stereotypes and help women work equally as men? When we take a closer look at one of the more gender-equal countries, France, we can better answer the question. As mentioned in the first section, France is proud of having the highest percentage of women in executive positions in listed companies among the countries in the G-7. Comparing Japan with France and learning how France has made progress in achieving gender equality will hopefully allow Japan to improve its policies for gender equality in the workplace. When the World Economic Forum reported a global gender gap for the first time in 2006, France ranked 70th while Japan was 79th (9). While there was only a narrow margin in 2006, the last 15 years have created a significant gap between the two countries. This year’s Global Gender Gap Report by the WEF revealed that France ranked 16th place overall and Japan 120th (10). Then what has made a big difference between the two countries? France has been trying to achieve gender equality since it was specified that “the law guarantees women equal rights to men in all areas” in paragraph 3 of the preamble of the French Fourth Republic Constitution in 1946. Regarding gender equality in decision-making in industry, a quota system, which was first created and introduced in Norway, was passed in January 2011 to have more than 40 % of men and women respectively on the board of directors. Target companies include listed and unlisted companies with more than 500 employees for three consecutive fiscal years and sales and total assets of more than 50 million euros. They are required to make the ratio of men and women more than 40 % by 2017. With a quota system, France has made great progress in empowering female workers over the five years from 2013 to 2017. The number of managerial women increased from 24.3% in 2013 to 42.3% in 2017. As of 2017, nearly half of companies have more than five women on the board, while all the companies have female directors (Ito, 72).
Tracing the road to achieving gender equality that France has taken, we can see that it is effective to appoint more female workers to the board to create corporate value and positively impact society. As well as France, many other European countries, including Norway, The Netherlands, Israel, Spain, Iceland, Germany, and Belgium, have adopted a quota system. A positive result has been seen in those countries, and gender equality has improved. Research has shown that companies with more female managers are likely to perform better and become more profitable (The Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training). Senator, and a member of the Flemish Parliament, Turan argues that quotas in the business world can guarantee women an equal opportunity for executive positions. She adds, “Quotas help rectify women’s under-representation in prominent positions and make it entirely normal for women to take up managerial roles in economics.” As she states, introducing a quota system will allow countries to take the first step to foster gender equality, and Japan needs that push. Therefore, the most equitable way forward for Japan would be to follow those nations in Europe and introduce a quota system.
Then, how can Japan adopt these models like France and other European countries? Importing and introducing systems in countries in Europe does not seem to be a good idea as the situation in Japanese society is different from that of those countries when they first set the target figure. Not adapting the same models, Japan needs to build elaborate and practical systems from scratch while taking into account the social landscape. Although Japan aims to have more than 30 % of women in managerial positions by 2030, this looks like too idealistic a goal to accomplish as it is not forced but encouraged. To help gain momentum towards the advancement of women, Japan should show a clear and practical goal by enshrining a quota system into law and should make it compulsory for all the companies to satisfy the specific figure. This positive movement will eventually raise awareness of gender equality at an institutional level and help them step forward to create an environment where women can work and shine equally as men. Simply appointing more women to managerial positions means less. The next step would be to discover women with high potential and train and support them to acquire knowledge and skills that managerial positions require, such as conversance with their company’s executive ability. Also, a cultural reform should be made so that women can build their careers, and for that, men’s cooperation is necessary. Japan should improve legislation to encourage more men to take parental leave and participate in housework so that women can devote themselves to their work.
Japan is lagging behind in gender equality, especially in employment, while other countries have made progress. Though the Japanese government has set a seemingly impossible goal of achieving 30 % of women in leadership positions, many companies seem far from it, with only about 8 % of female directors. The reason behind Japan’s struggle in combating gender inequality would be the difficulty of keeping work and home life balance and employment status. A traditional stereotype portrays women as taking full responsibility for housework and childrearing, limiting their ability to work full time. Thus, women are likely to be employed part-time or on contract, making it hard for them to climb the career ladder and attain a managerial position, even though they want to work as fully as possible. Employment status and traditional stereotypes towards women make them quite vulnerable and insecure. As most of them are hired in non-regular employment, they are not firmly protected from firings and layoffs contrary to regular workers. They always work with the threat of getting unemployed when companies face a crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this fragile condition where women are trapped and set a new barrier. To not waste women’s talents and protect them from the possible threat, it is even more urgent that the government should take measures to empower women and give them equal access to work. One of the most effective ways Japan can take is adopting a quota system with which many companies in European countries have more female directors and become successful. If Japan enshrines the system into law, it will help make companies aware of gender equality in the workplace, and they are likely to make further efforts. When there are more women in decision-making positions, hopefully, they help break down the glass ceiling and take the initiative to improve the working environment for the next generation and themselves in a practical way. What matters is not increasing the mere number of female workers as a quota system alone cannot make a difference. It is essential to ensure that they realize that they are equally capable and can play an active role by properly training and encouraging men to support women in building their careers. To create a society where women can “shine,” continuous and consistent efforts must be made at national and institutional levels.
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