Japan PM Abe calls for greater female participation in workforce

Japan PM Abe calls for greater female participation in workforce

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to get more women into work to boost the nation’s economy.

Japan’s working environment is known for many things, but flexibility and work-life balance are not among them. Punishing working hours and a culture of unpaid overtime have ensured that the country has a reputation for being tough on working parents.

As a result women, many of whom choose to give up work altogether when they have children, are distinctly under-represented in the workforce. Data shows that just a tenth of Japanese managers are women. At a time when Tokyo is working hard to revive the nation’s long-suffering economy and an ageing population is shrinking the workforce, that level of economic inactivity is far from desirable.


As a result, prime minister Shinzo Abe has been taking a range of steps to improve female participation in the workforce – and to set an example, he is aiming to fill 30 per cent of Japanese leadership positions with women by 2020.

Critics have argued that the target is unrealistic, or that the government should focus on increasing opportunities and improving working conditions rather than simply promoting women who are already in the workforce. But as in Europe, where many nations already adopt quota systems, the idea of telling firms how many women to have at which level of the business is controversial.

Either way, the one area where Mr Abe can make a definite difference is within the government itself. In February it invited women from different government departments to a training course to prepare them for more senior roles, which led to the development of a blueprint to fix the system and give government workers more time for family life. The prime minister also appointed five women to his 18-strong cabinet just last week.


Legislation has also factored into the plans, with steps taken to expand childcare and make it easier for mothers to get back to work. Mr Abe is also compelling firms to disclose how many women they have on their boards.

So how successful is Abenomics at recruiting women? Japan is currently hosting a global forum on women’s leadership, where International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has applauded Mr Abe’s work. In her keynote speech, she explained that the government is “working flat out” to get more women into work. However, she also acknowledged that current progress will not deliver the growth Japan needs to get out of its economic rut.

Even if they are “implemented aggressively”, Japan’s current schedule of reforms could add 0.25 per cent to the nation’s growth, she said. But that falls far short of the one per cent improvement that will be needed before anyone can say that Abenomics has been a success. Institutional changes will be needed before women can really help to get Japan back on its feet.

“Companies demand long hours, insist on face time, and tie pay to seniority rather than merit,” she said. “There are lots of silos and – let me be candid – lots of exclusive ‘boys’ networks.”

Japan might be headed in the right direction, but there is still plenty more to do to get women into the workforce and sitting on the board.

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