Is Abe’s womenomics working?

Author: Helen Macnaughtan, University of London

In September 2013 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to create a society in which ‘all women can shine’. Abe acknowledged that women had long been an underutilised resource in the Japanese economy. He promised to boost female labour participation rates, increase the presence of women in corporate board rooms and improve gender equality. Two years on, is womenomics working in Japan?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses with his new female Cabinet Ministers (clockwise), Yuko Obuchi, minister of economy, trade and industry, Haruko Arimura, minister in charge of supporting women's empowerment, Midori Matsushima, minister of justice, Eriko Yamatani, chair of the National Public Safety Commission and minister in charge of the abduction issue, and Sanae Takaichi, minister of internal affairs and communications, in Tokyo on 3 September 2014. (Photo: AAP)

The good news is that women and work is finally a key focus of the political and corporate agenda. The Abe government is actively promoting the so-called ‘20–30’ numerical target, which aims to ‘increase the share of women in leadership positions to at least 30 per cent by 2020 in all fields of society’.

There are new government-led initiatives focusing on the empowerment of women in business, such as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s (METI) ‘Diversity Management Selection 100 Project’ and the ‘Nadeshiko Brand’ program, jointly launched by METI and the Tokyo Stock Exchange. These high-profile projects publicise companies who are making ‘exceptional progress’ in encouraging women in the workplace. The designation process is stimulating competition among Japan’s leading corporations to create best practice and attain visibility as female-friendly employers.

New legislation likely to be passed later in 2015 (it has been under Diet deliberation since 8 August) will require both public and private organisations to disclose key data on the position of women in their employment as well as develop an action plan for the future. Ahead of this new law, the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) is already asking member companies to make voluntary disclosures.

Many Japanese companies are also actively implementing initiatives for women. These generally focus on setting targets for hiring, retaining and promoting women, and ensuring there are support systems in place such as female-focused career training, extended maternity provisions and shorter hours for working mothers. It is also no longer acceptable in corporate Japan to channel women into non-career tracks and expect them to resign upon marriage or childbirth. Although Japan continues to rank poorly in international comparisons of women in business and leadership, steady incremental progress is being made.

But a number of key barriers could inhibit the ultimate success of womenomics.

Childcare remains a sticky issue. A majority of working mothers with pre-school children rely on nursery schools. Places are limited and there can be long waiting lists. Enrolment is from April each year even though babies are born all year round and maternity leave may start at any time. Companies also have to verify a woman’s full-time employment as part of the registration process for childcare centres.

Social norms still dictate that women are the main carers of children in the family, so working mothers are less likely to be offered client-facing roles or career promotions given the culture of long work hours. Unless working mothers (and fathers) can realistically combine parenthood and a career, it will be difficult to realise the aims of womenomics.

A second issue is the way Japanese companies have interpreted the gauntlet that womenomics targets have laid down. Equal employment regulations are making it easier than ever for women to remain working after marriage and childbirth. Yet in the current corporate culture this does not necessarily translate into career paths for women that are on par with those enjoyed by men. This leads to an environment where the presence of women is a ‘profiling’ activity driven by unrealistic targets, rather than an environment where women and diversity are viewed as a source of competitive advantage.

Many companies still operate with a ‘one size fits all’ hierarchical, linear career model. This career path does not easily accommodate the diverse needs of female employees or indeed those of male employees. The low level of women in Japanese companies, particularly in managerial roles, is not simply due to the challenges of parenting and work–life balance, but is also a problem of mindset.

Even companies that are progressing in their diversity-friendly policies, cite the difficulties of overcoming long-standing gendered workplace attitudes. Problems include a lack of confidence from women who see few female role models at the managerial level and who do not wish to put themselves forward for promotion into a linear career path (originally designed for male workers) that appears to offer little work–life balance.

Unconscious bias is also at play. A lingering paternalistic corporate culture presumes that female employees would not want to (or could not) handle the responsibility and challenges of a promotion. Unless workplace practices can embrace change, they will not be able to embrace women.

Womenomics is having a horizontal impact. Recruitment and retention of women is gradually improving in both public and private sector organisations. But these women are being slotted into an existing, rigid mode of employment. Unless employment practices adapt to the changing needs of a more diverse workforce, there will continue to be low levels of women who advance to positions of leadership.

At the moment, the mostly unattainable ‘20–30’ target is driving the womenomics debate. What is needed instead is a cohesive mix of policy and strategy that aims to realise social justice and gender equality. While there is now a broad acceptance that Japan’s economy needs women in the workforce, institutional models and social norms still need to catch up.

Dr Helen Macnaughtan is Senior Lecturer in International Business and Management (Japan) at SOAS, University of London and co-editor of Japan Forum.

This article was originally posted here in the Australia and Japan in the Region Forum, a publication of the Australia-Japan Research Centre.