There are many smart, educated women in Japan who could be pulling the country out of its current economic recession into a spectacular pandemic recovery.
But the The country’s rigid labor system – along with the predominantly male leadership – remains a huge impediment that prevents women from getting better-paying jobs.
Critics warn that the country is in danger of becoming a nation of frustrated housewives with college degrees.
Japan’s own timetable for significantly increasing the number of women in leadership roles by 2020 passed silently at the end of last year, without even coming close to that goal.
Known as “Womenomics” in English and advertised with great fanfare, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of creating a “Japan where women can shine” was largely a failure.. And not just because of Covid-19.
Currently, there is only one woman for every ten men in Parliament, and less than 15% of senior positions in the private sector are held by women – half of the original 2020 target.
Shinzo Abe announced the creation of a “Japan where women can shine” — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argues that the policy was a success: there are now more women working than ever before. But what kind of work are these highly educated women doing?
Critics believe this policy had little to do with creating social change – which would allow women to progress in work – and more to do with the pressing need for workers. Japan’s working-age population has been shrinking rapidly since the 1990s.
For decades, around 60% of women left professional work after having their first child. Mothers who care for their children full-time – because their husband’s income can support the entire family – have traditionally been seen as privileged.
But when the Womenomics policy arrived, mothers were already starting to return to work because the family income declined.
Only 42.1% left their jobs in 2019, raising the percentage of participation in the labor market to 70.9% for women aged 15-64 and up to 77.7% in the 25-44 age group, according to the government numbers.
To support this change, the government has launched campaigns to eliminate waiting lists at day care centers. And it also pressured big companies to have at least one woman in executive positions. But there were no financial incentives, no penalties for not complying.
Japanese business women in central Tokyo’s business district — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
As a result, many women were stationed in part-time positions or without the possibility of promotion. The average income of Japanese women is more than 40% lower than that of men, according to the World Economic Forum.
More than half of Japanese women enter the labor market with a university degree, almost as many as men. But after quitting a full-time job, it’s nearly impossible to return to your original career after a period of leave.
“If you want to go back to work, you’ll need to look for a job at the supermarket – as a student looking for part-time work would,” says Yumiko Suzuki, who works as a professional consultant at the Warc agency.
Fifteen years ago, Suzuki also decided to give up paid work and become a housewife – a decision that wasn’t easy for her.
Your story is more or less typical. After university, she worked as hard as her male colleagues—that is, even after hours, often missing the last train home, just to prove she was capable.
Yumiko now helps other women resume their careers — Photo: Yumiko Suzuki
But when she met her husband, who worked for the same company, they realized that to have a family, one of them would have to give up his career.
Currently, many working mothers have the option of working shorter hours or flexible hours, which did not exist when she left the company in 2006.
“We were both working 24 hours a day. We knew we couldn’t start a family that way,” she says.
But after seven years as a mother and housewife raising their two children, Suzuki tried to get back into the workforce.
She was surprised when she realized that her time at home was seen as “a gap” in her resume. She couldn’t even get an interview.
Finally, she needed to earn three professional certificates before she was finally offered a full-time job at a start-up. Now she helps other moms get back to their careers.
The crux of the problem is Japan’s rigid hiring practices and the lifetime employment system created to rebuild the economy after 1945 — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
The problem lies in Japan’s rigid hiring practices. The lifetime employment system created to rebuild the economy after World War II does not strictly set the standards, but major companies continue to employ new graduates every spring and offer to them jobs for life.
And if you miss that opportunity, it can be very difficult to apply for another job next year.
Any flaw in your resume is also disapproved of by large companies, which still use an age-based rating system: the longer you live, the more your career progresses, regardless of your ability.
Kathy Matsui, who coined the term Womenomics while working at investment bank Goldman Sachs, says “the country is so lacking in talent that we’re looking at the entire time-based assessment system.”
She hopes that a radical change in hiring practices will finally take place. Matsui says this shift is being caused by the exodus of bright working women who are no longer opting to work at reputable companies that expect you to “stay 30 years until you become a manager.”
Kathy Matsui says Japanese companies face a shortage of labor and therefore need to expand their search for talent — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
The world of start-ups, which she entered after leaving Goldman Sachs to launch a venture capital fund called the MPower Partners Fund, operates very differently.
“These new companies are trying to tap into the supply of talent, not just from women, but from older workers as well. There aren’t enough people for all the work that needs to be done, and if you refuse to change, you’ll lose the war for talents.”
How to drive change
Cynthia Usui, national manager of the hotel chain LOF Hotel, agrees. His company is unusual in that it actively hires former housewives, single mothers and others who often struggle to get jobs with traditional companies.
“I don’t think companies have a choice. You need to have a diverse team like ours to succeed.”
For 17 years, she herself was a stay-at-home mom. Usui went back to work at the age of 47 – and his first job was in his daughter’s school cafeteria.
“The government spends a lot of money retraining Japanese men in their 50s and 60s” with so-called graying human resource centers, she adds.
“I would like to say to the government: you should be spending the same money on women who have been housewives and are trying to get back to work.”
For Kathy Matsui, it is frustrating that many do not understand that Womenomics could mean better financial performance for the industry and greater economic growth for Japan.
“People are still looking at the problem in the field of human rights or equality, which is definitely the case, but that doesn’t get everyone’s attention,” she says.
Until now, Japanese companies have been reluctant to publicly commit to increasing the number of women in their workforce.
But the drive for change may eventually come from multinationals, which are more active – such as Goldman Sachs, former employer of Kathy Matsui.
She has gender parity as a goal when hiring graduates, and when facing difficulties in finding women with adequate qualifications for entry-level engineering positions, she has run coding workshops.