Women as a Catalyst for Growth: Making It Happen

Politics Economy Society

In April Prime Minister Abe Shinzō unveiled a growth strategy built around a more active role for working women. Labor expert and former business executive Iwata Kimie examines the three planks of Abe’s plan to unleash the power of women and offers her own recipe for change.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has made “active participation by women” the core of his economic growth strategy and a key element of the three-pronged economic policy known as Abenomics. Such an intense focus on working women is without precedent in Japanese government, and is to be roundly applauded. But how does Abe intend to achieve this laudable goal? On April 19, the prime minister met with representatives of the press and the business community to announce three initiatives for enhancing women’s role in the labor force: eliminate the day-care shortage, extend child-care leave to three years, and set a target of at least one woman executive at each company. In the following, I share my own thoughts on the merits and shortcomings of this basic plan.

Day Care: An Urgent Priority

The biggest and most urgent problem hindering women’s participation in the workforce is the shortage of government-subsidized day-care services, a key component of our social infrastructure. The prime minister has set a target of 400,000 additional openings for children in day care in order to eliminate the long waits currently facing countless Japanese families. But 400,000 seems like an inadequate target, given that the Cabinet Office estimated the gap between day-care supply and potential demand at 850,000 a few years back.

The five-year time frame also leaves something to be desired. Three years ago the city of Yokohama had more children on day-care waiting lists than any other municipality in Japan. Yet by the spring of this year it had reduced that number to zero, thanks to an all-out effort by the local government. If other big-city governments follow the cabinet’s lead and place top priority on expanding the role of women in the labor force, the government’s target should be achievable in three years as well. Japan needs to move with all possible speed to resolve the critical shortage in day-care openings.

Getting Real About Child-care Leave

Speaking before Japan’s business leaders last April, Abe called on corporations to voluntarily extend child-care leave to three years from the 12 months (although 18 months is the maximum) mandated by law. Certainly we should welcome any change that would expand women’s options for timing their return to work, particularly given the current shortage of day-care services; three-year-olds are typically easier to place, whether at day-care centers, which have more openings for older children, or at nursery schools. Having the option to extend one’s child-care leave to three years would doubtless contribute to a woman’s peace of mind. But promoting three-year leave as the norm could be counterproductive from the standpoint of fuller participation in the workforce.

One issue is the impact on women’s careers. The question is not simply whether a woman can return to the workplace after taking time off. It is whether she can return to pursue a career with opportunities for advancement. In the business world, a multiyear leave of absence is generally assumed to have a negative impact on an employee’s prospects. Retraining programs for returning employees—assuming companies are willing to provide them—can only go so far in bringing them back up to speed and making up for lost momentum. Even at companies that currently offer up to three years of child-care leave, very few women take that amount of time off; most return to work within a year or so out of justifiable concerns for their future.

Another issue is the role of the father. The majority of young Japanese fathers today say they would like to be more involved in childrearing, but very few feel at liberty to take the child-care leave to which they are entitled by law. Instead of encouraging men to take advantage of this provision, Abe’s plan seems to promote a backward-looking vision in which the woman stays home and dedicates herself to childrearing full-time. Certainly this is the image evoked by Abe’s catch-phrase sannenkan dakko-shihōdai, or “three years of unlimited hugging.”

The best way to encourage women’s full participation in the labor force is not to promote three-year child-care leave but to make day-care more readily and widely available, particularly for infants less than 24 months old, where there is an extremely short supply. Doing so will allow women to return to work whenever they see fit. The government should focus on creating these conditions as quickly as possible.

Time for “Positive Action”

The administration’s third idea for unleashing the potential of women is admirably clear and straightforward: a minimum of one woman executive per company. If companies are committed to placing a woman on their board of directors, they will make better use of their female employees overall, and the ratio of management positions held by women will inevitably rise.

A full 27 years after Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Law went into effect, women still occupy a mere 10% of managerial positions nationwide. Even with companies providing equal opportunity under the law, women have not achieved anything close to parity with men in the workplace. Unless we are prepared to wait an eternity to close the gender gap, we need more than the legal guarantee of equal opportunity. To accelerate progress, we need special measures to actively promote gender equity in the workforce.

I believe companies must begin taking “positive action” to overcome entrenched gender disparities. This means working toward numerical targets, to be set by each company according to its circumstances, such as the ratio of women hired and their share of managerial and executive positions. To achieve those targets, companies will naturally have to offer flexible employment conditions to accommodate working parents. In addition, they will need to provide active career support through specially designed training and fair evaluation systems, as well as female role models and mentors. I call on the government to take the next step toward gender equality by requiring each company to draft a positive action plan.

Rethinking the Japanese Work Ethic

Prime Minister Abe’s plan is missing one further element essential to the goal of fuller participation by women: a sea change in Japanese attitudes and expectations toward regular company employees. In Japan’s corporate culture, regular employees routinely work long past quitting time. They accept reassignment to remote locations without question. Such a work style may be possible for a man married to a full-time homemaker, but it is hardly practical for a woman with children. Not surprisingly, most new mothers who do manage to return to their jobs are unable to maintain the working practices demanded of regular employees and end up on the “mommy track.” This is not what we mean by full participation.

To enable active workforce participation by women with children—including a greater role in middle and upper management—we must change these deeply rooted expectations and foster a work style in which overtime is the exception, not the rule. Achieving this at the workplace level will be the task of each company’s management, but the government can move business in this direction with the help of such policy measures as an increase in the statutory overtime pay.

As readers will gather from the foregoing, there is much to be done to achieve the kind of full participation by women that Prime Minister Abe has placed at the center of his economic growth strategy. But not all the tasks I have outlined can to be accomplished immediately. The top priorities should be eliminating the day-care shortage and putting an end to overtime in principle. I am confident that once these two challenges are met, the role of women in Japanese business society will change beyond recognition.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 10, 2013)

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