Thursday, July 31, 2014

Japan and Working Women: The Swelling Wave of Abe’s 'Womenomics'

Via The Economist.

The situation of working women has been tenuous in Japan, which ranked 103 out of 136 countries in World Economic Forum's 2013’s Global Gender Gap Report. This is due in part to traditional gender roles that expect women to tend for her family at home. And while more women have joined the workforce in modern times, they are still expected to return home after marriage and childbirth. (A July poll found that 40 percent of both men and women in their 20s to 40s believed that husbands should work and wives should care for the home.)

This had not gone unnoticed to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After his election in 2013, Abe outlined his economic growth strategy dubbed “Abenomics”, saying, “Private consumption and investment will come much sooner than we expected,” and  "to enhance Japan's productivity" and "to retool Japan's economic structure... Women should be given much greater opportunities." A year later, his revised plan gave more details (and urgency) to the initiative.

“Under my administration, women’s active participation constitutes the core of the growth strategy, rather than social policy,” he said during a speech in the OECD Forum held in Paris in May. “By encouraging the advancement of women in society we will raise our growth rate and promote ‘womenomics.’”

The term “womenomics” was first coined by managing director of Goldman Sachs Japan Co Kathy Matsui over a decade ago, and became a keyword in Abe’s economic plan.

“Abenomics won’t succeed without ‘womenomics’,” he said during the opening ceremony of 2014 Women in Business Summit in Tokyo. “Half of all consumers are women and by making use of women’s ideas there will be new innovations.”

Abe’s “womenomics” initiatives include creating up to 400,000 new daycare facilities within the next four years, as well as having increasing women in leadership positions for public and private sectors at least 30 percent by 2020.

The Japan Times reported that 399 women out of 1,918 applicants (20.8 percent) passed the civil service exams in 2014, a record number of women to pass the exams and the second-highest percentage after 2012 (22.9 percent passed), showing an increasing number of women willing to work.

Japan analyst Devin Stewart, a former head of business and policy programs at Japan Society, wrote in The Diplomat that attitudes on gender roles have slowly been shifting in Japan.

“Surveys in Japan show that particularly younger Japanese are less tied to traditional gender roles – including a greater desire to pursue careers and a more accepting attitude toward divorce – and are also more tolerant of gays and lesbians,” Stewart said.

He added that in addition to younger Japanese adapting more liberal attitudes, events such as the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have left people rethinking their lives.

“People now question the value of long-suffering, dreary careers in the bureaucracy and corporations,” he said.

Since Abe’s statements, some companies have jumped into employing more women. In June, delivery company Sagawa Express stated that they will employ around 10,000 housewives as part-time delivery staff around their neighborhood by 2016. This arrangement, they said, would help housewives earn extra income as well as still manage tending for their homes.

Additionally, the Japanese government is also considering cutting a tax benefit that dependent spouses, mostly housewives, receive, hoping to incentivize women to seek full-time employment. (Households receive more tax deductions when one spouse does not work or works part-time, compared to when both spouses work full-time.)

However, there are still many difficulties ahead for working women in Japan. In June 2014, lawmaker Ayaka Shiomura received sexist heckling during a Tokyo assembly debate by Assemblyman Akihiro Suzuki and other unidentified members of the Liberal Democratic Party while discussing conditions for working mothers.

After receiving much criticism in both Japanese and international press, Suzuki publicly apologized to Shiomura.

Akihiro Suzuki publicly apologizes to Ayaka Shiomura. Via Quartz

In response, the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly approved a resolution that would prevent discriminatory comments towards assembly members.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Shiomura said that her “head went blank” upon being heckled and that no one appeared to think the remarks were inappropriate.

“Overall, I support [Abe’s] policies. However, in relation to this incident, I think policymakers need to listen to and understand the voices of the actual women that the policies target,” she said. “The male members’ offensive remarks indicate they think women who aren’t married, or can’t bear a child, aren’t worth listening to.”

Shiomura called for a need for more female politicians to prevent such instances and to pay better attention to politicians that people vote for.

Additionally, various reports show that it is still an uphill battle for working women. According to government data, over half of all Japanese women attend college (similar to that of men), but after university, only 63% of them work, and 70% of those who work stop working for ten or more years after having children (compared to 30% in America), and often end up quitting permanently.

The Daily Journal reported that many Japanese companies still overtly discriminate women in hiring, promoting, and pay, reporting that women were paid 70 percent of that of men for equal work, according to government data.

Japan Times also published an article saying Abe’s “womenomics” is not substantive to improve the situation of working women in Japan, noting blind spots such as companies conventionally using loopholes of Equal Employment Opportunities Law to create two-tiered career tracks and pushing most women in second-tier careers.

They also reported that “womenomics” would have little impact on small and midsized companies, which lack resources to provide family-friendly policies unlike big firms, and in academia, where networking within the “gentleman’s club” determines employment more than actual hiring processes.

Shihoko Goto, the Northeast Asia Associate of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Asia Program, said that Abe’s administration needs to be more attentive.

“First, Abe’s team must understand that mothers of young children who need day care centers make up only a small percentage of the potential female labor force,” Goto said, saying older women also wish to be involved in their children’s lives. “Teenagers, meanwhile, may spend more time at school and with their peers after class, but they need adult guidance more than ever.”

“[T]here also needs to be a national dialogue about the role fathers play in family life, and how there can be a true partnership between mothers and fathers in raising their children.”

“The impact of Abe’s stimulative Abenomics policies is still questionable but his “womenomics” rhetoric has sparked a conversation,” noted Devin Stewart. “The notion that a leader like Abe can make a decree like that may sound dirigiste to some Western readers, but it seems to be having a significant impact on the mindsets of some professionals.”

--Younjoo Sang

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