It is common for female employees in Japan to retire once they enter motherhood, as it is a societal norm for mothers to adopt the full time position of child caretaker. Although women receive a number of strong legal protections in the workplace, Japanese media has been known to mock feminist movements in Japan around the world. And western media continues to stereotype the Japanese woman as a subservient geisha. The lack of female representation in Japan’s workforce is well publicized, and Vice President Joe Biden even met with organizations that promote equal rights in the workplace.
Not only is there a social stigma against women with children working in a company, Japan is notorious for having extraordinarily long working hours, making it difficult for both parents to combine work with the commitment of raising a child. Only one in five male Japanese employees work less than 40 hours in a week, and only about one in two female employees do the same. Japanese companies are also known for not giving female workers jobs with responsibilities that match their abilities and education. So it is not too hard to believe that 60% of Japanese women do not return to work after giving birth.
Until recently the Japanese government was doing very little to promote female employment, and the few efforts to encourage women to stay at their job after giving birth were lackluster. In 1985, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) was adopted, and for the first time companies were no longer allowed to recruit women separately from their male counterparts, resulting in a spike in women’s labor force participation. However, the law did not result in women receiving any more responsibilities in the work place, and recent studies even suggest that the spike in workforce participation had more to do with a simultaneous labor shortage.
Once the Japanese economy started to slow in the early 1990s, companies – in an attempt to cut costs -- reduced the amount of women they hired, while hiring of men saw no reduction. The government tried to address this problem by amending the EEOL in 1997, but was once again generally panned as being far too weak.
The social costs of this gender gap in employment are more than apparent, but analysts are beginning to emphasize the economic costs. Japan Research Institute's chief senior economist, Kosuke Motani, has estimated that Japan would increase its GDP by at least 5% if it employed the same percentage of women as the US or EU.
Ms. Mireya Solis, Japan Chair at the Brookings Institute, has noted that increasing female employment can actually help Japan’s declining birthrate. At a recent symposium on the challenges facing Abenomics, she quoted a OECD study that found that countries with higher female work forces have higher fertility rates.
Economists fear that Japan’s shrinking population will only hurt its economic standing. Motani believes that Japan's economy will see little to no economic improvement from the Abe Administration’s quantitative easing and stimulus programs, both of which, he notes, have been attempted and failed in the last two decades. Instead, Motani has found a direct correlation between the number of employed and consumption, and thus, growth in GDP. But since the population is in the decline, he expects Japan's work force to begin shrinking as more retirements begin rolling out in the early 2020s, leading to a harsh decline in consumption.
Besides increasing wages and reforming immigration policy to allow more foreigner workers, Motani thinks it is imperative for Japan's economic survival for more women to enter the work force. He believes that Japanese women are the consumer in society and if they have a better salary, consumption will increase.
Fortunately it appears that Abe received this memo. After taking office in late 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a number of policies that aimed at improving female participation in the workforce as part of his broader package of steps to revive Japan’s struggling economy, known as “Abenomics.” Policies include building more day-care centers and pushing companies to have more female managers and directors.
Japan has a long way to go before women are truly treated as equals, but luckily it seems that the Abe administration is up to the task of breaking a history of inequality.