Breaking the Glass Ceiling or Making it Shine – Womenomics in Japan

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to revive the Japanese economy that has been in recession for more than two decades. Japan is facing severe demographic challenges due to its rapidly shrinking workforce. Abe wants to tackle this problem through robots and yes… women! With his trademark policy measures known as womenomics he aims at laying the groundwork for a society in which “all women can shine”. By 2020, Abe wants 30 percent of the country’s leadership positions to be held by women, a large task for a country with the lowest proportion of women in its national legislative assembly in the OECD. Will Japan be able to overcome the barriers of traditional gender norms in order to revive its economy?

The Japanese economy is – despite its persistent recession – the third largest in the world. One less reputable feature on its merit list however is that Japan has the second highest gender gap amongst high-income countries (after South Korea). Japan is ranked as low as 111th on a list of 144 countries included in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016. Japan’s gender equality is most severely lagging behind in the areas of political empowerment and accessibility of leadership positions, two areas that of course are deeply intertwined.

Female employment is increasing, but female and male participation in the labor market take utterly different forms. The male breadwinner model continues to be dominant and women have trouble finding ways to combine the traditional role of motherhood with a career. The small capacity of childcare facilities as well as maternity harassment still force the majority of first-child mothers to exit the labor market.

In Japan, only 11 percent of legislators, senior officials, and managers are women. Female leaders are proven to be liked less if they apply a leadership style that is considered too assertive, the very practice that ordinarily (meaning for men) leads to success. Instead, women gain recognition by performing according to traditional gender norms. Starting in 2005, both the ruling LDP and the opposition party DPJ have recruited young women – referred to as the “Princess Corps” or “Female ninjas” – in the hope of attracting new voters. When presenting these women to the public, emphasis was given to their hobbies, interests and dating life rather than their merits as a politician.

So what is Prime Minister Abe’s stance on gender equality? Is he the savior that will push women to the top, as his policies of womenomics would suggest? In Abe’s first term as prime minister in 2006, the number of women in parliament actually decreased and there was no glimpse of female empowerment to be caught. So, why this sudden change of heart?

Heart probably had nothing to do with it. Closing the gender gap would help to boost Japan’s GDP by an estimated 13 percent, which of course Abe is aware of. Despite the obvious resistance among political leaders to change the gendered status quo, it is difficult to overlook such an opportunity to break the grip of the unwavering recession. Still, it took the Japanese government about 25 years, as well as Shinzo Abe two terms as prime minister, to actually formulate policy measures to try and use the basically untapped resource pool of female leaders. So why now? Japan is one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world and the number of workers is shrinking in relation to the number of retirees. Japanese immigration policies are continuously restrictive, which leaves only women and technology as tools to tackle the demographic challenges that the country is facing.

No matter the objective, women are gaining momentum in Japanese corporate society. The government has initiated a series of surveys displaying the scope of inequality in Japan. The reports show that almost one third of Japanese women suffered sexual harassment in the workplace and 48 % have suffered maternity harassment. Abe’s womenomics aim at creating a zero-childcare-waiting list, expanding benefits for both maternity and paternity leave as well as encouraging companies to promote female employment. Sounds pretty good, right?

Well, rather than questioning the traditional gender norms that restrain women’s advances in Japanese society, womenomics merely increase female employment within the male-breadwinner model. More and more Japanese women do in fact participate in the labor market, yet are still expected to care for their family. Motherhood and career are continuously incompatible and Japanese women increasingly delay marriage and childbirth in order to pursue their careers. As a result, the fertility rate is declining, which is counterproductive to Abe’s attempt to revive the economy.

Abe only increases women’s opportunities in theory. The maternity leave program has been progressive on paper already before Abe had initiated womenomics, meaning that formalities are not enough to establish equal opportunities in practice. Also, the number of female policymakers is still dramatically low compared to other high-income countries, and in Abe’s LDP, the number is even lower. This raises questions about Abe’s sincerity when it comes to female empowerment, creating disincentives for companies to implement change. The LDP needs to signal an unambiguous commitment to the policies by incorporating more women in their own party and introducing quotas in order for corporate Japan to follow their lead.

The obvious resistance towards changing the male-breadwinner model seems to be strong within the values of the conservative Prime Minister Abe. Despite finally having acknowledged that an increase of female employment could be the solution to the exhausted economy, Abe is still unwilling to engage himself in the hot potato topic that is gender inequality. Abe’s promise to “make Japanese women shine” will most probably fail and neither equality nor economic growth will be provided. The fertility rate will continue to decline along with women’s growing endeavors in the labor market. Abe and his fellow male leaders will arguably have to get onboard with the changing gender roles if they really want to revive the economy.

Georgia de Leeuw

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