The article entitled “Japan: The worst developed country for mothers?” caught my attention when I was looking at the BBC News website (See the article posted by Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of BBC News, Tokyo, on 22 March 2013) the other day. The headline did not shock me though, as I had already come across articles and reports presenting similar views, and the figures the journalist cited from different government sources to make his point seemed convincing. As a Japanese woman myself, however, I felt sad reading it.
Earlier, I had believed that the social status of the Japanese women had to have risen in the last three decades, during which time I had worked and lived mainly in Europe. Each time I had come home on holiday during those years, I had seen new office buildings having been built where I had believed more women coming out of institutions of higher learning had been absorbed with greater opportunities and responsibilities than what the women of earlier generations had enjoyed. I had believed that women must have advanced socio-economically, particularly after the enactment in 1985 of the Japanese Equal Employment Opportunity Law, which made it unlawful to discriminate anyone on account of being a woman, with respect to recruitment, transfer, promotion, vocational training, fringe benefits, retirement and dismissal.
I believe that women in any country are just as capable as men are if they are accorded similar encouragement and opportunities as men. In fact, I have known a number of Japanese women who have performed or are performing well in their respective professions. However, I realize that the status of women in my country as a whole is still very much to be desired compared with those in many other countries.
This is illustrated in the Global Gender Gap Report published annually since 2006 by the World Economic Forum, which presents the “global gender gap index”. It tries to “capture the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities.” It is “designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries, rather than the actual levels of the available resources and opportunities in those countries.” It is calculated in such a way to make it “independent from the countries’ levels of development”. Moreover, it “evaluates countries based on outcomes, rather than inputs”, and the evaluation is carried out in the areas of (1) economic participation and opportunity, (2) educational attainment, (3) health and survival, and (4) political empowerment.
According to the global gender gap index rankings presented in the 2012 report, Japan came in 101st out of the 135 countries examined. What I found sad was that my country had been ranked 80th in 2006, and rather than improving gradually thereafter, it has lowered its ranking in the world. The only other OECD countries that were ranked lower than Japan in 2012 were the Republic of Korea (108th) and Turkey (124th). Many high-income OECD countries came within the top 25. Interestingly, though, the top 25 also included the countries such as the Philippines (8th), Nicaragua (9th), Lesotho (14th), South Africa (16th) and Cuba (19th), which indicated the independence of the index from the level of economic development.
Another set of data I came across last year which would support the point made by Wingfield-Hayes showed women’s shares among upper management and company board members in Asia (see “Women managers in Asia: Untapped talent” in the Economist, July 7th 2012, p.59.). Among the ten Asia-Pacific countries and areas presented in the bar chart, the Japanese women’s share comprising about two percent among company board members and about one percent among executive committee members was the worst. Australia was ranked at the top (more than 12% among board members and 12% among executive committee members), followed by Hong Kong (about 9% and just under 11%, respectively), China (nearly 8% and 9%), Taiwan (almost 8% and 9%), and Singapore (approximately 7% and 15%). In the West, women usually made up 10-20% of senior managers and company board members, according to the article.
The reasons for the low level of women among top executives mentioned in the article included the “double burden of work and domestic responsibilities”, senior managers having to be available to travel frequently, and the “scarcity of female role models”. These obstacles against women’s advancement were found both in Europe and Asia. The difference, the article points out, is that in Asia women face additional hurdles, such as the shortage of child care facilities and that very few senior managers are sympathetic to the reality faced by women and do not see “gender diversity as a strategic priority”.
Referring to the obstacles faced by the Japanese women, Wingfield-Hayes cites that Japanese husbands spend only one hour a day, on average, to help out with children and household chores, while their counterparts in Sweden, Germany and the United States spend about three hours. Moreover, while Japanese men are entitled to take paternity leave, only 2.6% take it for the fear that taking it might jeopardize their future promotion or job security. In addition, the shortage of affordable child-care facilities to meet working mothers’ needs can wane their desire to keep working, and he says that these are the reasons why 70% of women in Japan quit working after becoming mothers.
Social progress is frustratingly slow, but the Japanese men can no longer afford to remain feudalistic and chauvinistic in their attitudes toward women and on sharing household responsibilities when the world around them is changing and adapting to new environment at an ever increasing speed. Women should also be more assertive in claiming their rights protected by law and in demanding social services required for them to fulfill their own dreams and aspirations in life. Faced with the rapidly ageing population with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, resulting in shrinking workforce, Japan can no longer afford to waste women’s talent if it is to remain a viable economic power.