In 2012 ‘Womenomics’ was introduced in Japan in order to increase female employment by supporting women in the workplace. In addition to the obvious benefits of gender equality, the policies would help to ease Japan’s decades long trend of economic decline. Indeed, empirical evidence shows that boosting female employment could lead to a significant rise in Japanese GDP and also hike up the birthrate. However, the policies have clashed with social expectations and so far have generated few positive results.
Through Womenomics, Prime minister and leader of the LDP, Shinzō Abe has emphasised female empowerment. Accordingly, significant legislative changes have been committed to. For instance, Japanese companies with over 300 employees must disclose targets for promoting and hiring women and childcare leave benefits have been expanded and now rank amongst the most generous in the world. There are even future plans to alter a spousal tax break which currently causes 63% of married women to limit their working hours and support has been offered to three-generation households where grandparents can act as babysitters. Daycare availability has been improved with more flexible application rules and private companies allowed greater freedom to enter a previously state-dominated sector. Other changes have been made by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The ministry has launched two high-profile projects publicly praising firms who have shown ‘exceptional progress’ in supporting female staff.
However, despite these sweeping changes, half of Japan’s workforce remains underutilized and many women still take on lower-paid, part-time work or quit their job altogether if they become pregnant. This seems almost paradoxical when most Japanese women are highly educated and Japan’s female labor participation rate has surpassed that of the US.
New Policies vs. Old Mindsets
Indeed, the single greatest challenge thwarting gender equality in Japan are the social expectations placed upon women. In Japan, women are expected to become housewives after having their first child. Women who work whilst they are pregnant or when they are raising children face criticism, mistrust and even maternity-related harassment. In turn, their career and life choices are affected. So great is this obstacle that many women resign, commit to only part-time work or choose to never to start a family in the first place. Corporate culture poses another challenge. Traditional Japanese corporate culture values seniority and long working hours over performance. In effect, this means that committing to full-time work is virtually impossible for mothers, whilst fathers are left with no time or energy to help manage a household. Underlying these points is the argument that no matter how well intentioned Abe’s changes have been, his government has failed to address perennial limitations such as the gender pay gap. Japanese women who work full-time only earn around 68% of a man’s salary and although gender-based discrimination is outlawed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, there are zero penalties for non-compliers.
Role models and enforceability
So, what else must be done? First, more women are needed in leadership positions. 2016 saw several women assume offices of considerable influence, such as the Governor of Tokyo, the Defense Minister and the main opposition party leader. That being said, the LDP is still male-dominated and 73% of Japanese firms have no women in management positions. It is understandably difficult for women to visualize their career without role models to aspire to, especially since they are raised with little encouragement to pursue leadership positions. Male ‘champions of diversity’ may be key here, in order to ensure more women reach senior positions and influence other organizations. The number of champions could increase if gender equality was made part of mandatory education, thereby influencing younger people and changing the general attitude towards working women.
Second, for Abe’s Womenomics policies to work they need to be enforceable. The lacklustre results of the policies and resistance from companies demonstrates that coercion in the form of penalties for unlawful discrimination are needed. This way, long-term change will be achievable and the government’s quest for gender equality will seem more earnest. Moreover, enforceability would help to address structural problems such as the gender pay gap which so far has largely been ignored. Without doing so, policies such as increased accessibility to daycare will remain only as half measures.
Overall, slow change is taking place in Japan. Thanks to Womenomics, female labor participation is increasing and the number of Japanese men taking parental leave is rising. However, old convictions still limit women’s life and career choices, which in turn hinder the Japanese economy. Change is not guaranteed, but education on gender equality and enforcing legislation are both workable options. Abe’s efforts have not been fruitless and they have indeed bought the issue into the limelight, at present however, they lack the drive to achieve the change Japan needs.
Ms. Rebecka Nygren began her internship at ISDP in August 2016. She is a 4th year student at the Law School at Uppsala University, Sweden. At ISDP, Ms. Nygren will be affiliated with the Stockholm Japan Center, and will conduct research on Swedish-Japanese relations, as well as on gender issues in Japan.