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When Womenomics Meets Reality

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Pacific Money

When Womenomics Meets Reality

The Japanese government can make structural changes, but cultural attitudes are proving stubborn.

When Womenomics Meets Reality
Credit: Shinjuku via Tupungato /

“Abenomics is womenomics,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reasserted at the 2015 World Assembly for Women in Tokyo in August. Since taking office in December 2012, Abe has been pursuing a strategy that aims to revive Japan’s stagnant economy by promoting the participation and advancement of women in the Japanese workplace.

Nearly three years later, is womenomics working in Japan? The latest data released by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests progress on at least some fronts. The statistics have shown that Japan’s female labor force participation rate in 2014 has risen to 66 percent, its highest level in 15 years. The female unemployment rate has also dropped to a low of 3.5 percent. Indeed, Abe’s cabinet has introduced policies to address two structural issues that hold Japanese women back from working: lack of government and company support to balance career with motherhood, and the absence of a women-friendly work environment. The OECD data show that the government’s strategies have helped improve gender equality in Japan.

However, Abe’s womenomics is still bumping up against the stubborn realities. Social expectation of gender roles in patriarchal Japanese society remains a strong reason why women stay out of the workforce, and is likely to compromise the effectiveness of the government’s policy.

Structural Reforms

At the United Nations General Assembly in 2014,  Abe pledged to increase women’s participation in the workforce by creating a favorable environment for balancing motherhood with career, and to eradicate biases about the traditional female roles that exist in society. Abe’s statement points to the structural and cultural factors that both discourage Japanese women from working. Recognizing this, his administration has focused on two pronounced structural problems that prevent Japanese women from working.

One challenge for Japanese career women is balancing career and motherhood without sufficient childcare and nursing services. As of 2013, there were still 22,741 children on waiting lists nationwide for daycare facilities. To improve the childcare support system, Abe has articulated a goal of eradicating childcare waiting lists, “securing childcare arrangement for 400,000 children” by 2017, when childcare demand is expected to peak. One important policy, which took effect this April, is the adoption of a comprehensive new support system for children and childcare. To lessen the current demand for kindergartens and daycare centers, the new system encourages the use of small-scale local childcare facilities; to accommodate various household childcare needs, the system promotes childcare support within the local community, including after-school children’s clubs and temporary custody services. Meanwhile, the government is expected to lift a ban on foreign housekeepers in two experimental policy districts, Osaka and Kanagawa. Current regulations that only allow those who hold Japanese citizenship or foreign resident qualifications to work as housekeepers in Japan narrows the supply of childcare services. In another move, Abe has directed attention to Japanese corporate culture, which encourages employees to work excessive hours. He has called for a reform to working hours to allow women to “play an active role” in society.

Another challenge for female employees in Japan lies in the workplace itself. According to the OECD’s Economic Survey of Japan 2015, published in April, women account for just 2.1 percent of corporate directors in Japan, compared with about 20 percent in Canada and the United States. The World Economic Forum’s latest report on gender equality also showed that women working full time make only 68 percent of what men earn for similar work in Japan. To create incentives for Japanese women to join the workforce, Abe has targeted 30 percent female representation in leadership positions in Japan by 2020. Abe’s cabinet has developed strategies to create a work environment favorable to women, the most recent being a government-sponsored bill that requires companies with 301 or more employees, along with central and local governments, to set numerical targets for the employment and promotion of women. In addition, to encourage women to stay in the workplace, the Japanese government has urged companies to boost childcare leave benefits from 50 percent to 67 percent of salary for the first six months, and 50 percent for the subsequent six months.

Traditional Gender Roles

The government’s regulations may be gradually clearing the structural obstacles that deter women from joining the workforce, but what about the cultural constraints? Abe has acknowledged that prejudices about female gender roles existing in Japanese society need to be addressed if women’s participation in the workforce is to rise, but in this area progress has been minimal. In fact, there is little the government can do to reverse long-established cultural norms. Social expectations of traditional gender roles are buried deep within Japanese society and are strengthened by Japan’s conformity-oriented culture that downplays individual identities. A survey conducted in 2014 has shown that about 40 percent of young adults still believe that husbands should work full time while their wives stay at home. And in a 2015 survey published by Japanese advertising company Hakuhodo, when asked about the personal image that they would like to present, female respondents in Tokyo ranked at the bottom two the options of having “an independent mind” and of being “oriented to be successful in her career.”

For women in Japan who are inclined to work yet are constrained by structural economic and societal environment, the Japanese government can help to create a more conducive working environment. But it is unclear how longstanding conformity to gender-role expectations can be reversed. A change in such cultural norms, if it happens, would be a gradual process. All the Japanese government can do is to continue its policy initiatives: create a women-friendly work environment and encourage cooperation between government, company, and society to facilitate work-life balance. Perhaps the changes to the structural economic and societal environment can help to facilitate changes to the persistent conformity to traditional gender roles.

Emily S Chen is a Silas Palmer Fellow with the Hoover Institution and a 2015 Young Leader with the Pacific Forum CSIS. She holds a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies and a focus on international relations at Stanford University. Emily tweets @emilyshchen.