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Yurina Shimada, 44-year-old deputy section chief at Japan Tobacco, gives Shinzo Abe some credit for his rise through the management ranks.
When she was running for promotion in 2013, male colleagues questioned her abilities and complained about her advancement. But the Prime Minister‘s pressure for the emancipation of women, a policy known as âwomenomicsâ, outweighed their objections.
Five years later, only 5.6% of JT managers are women, and although the company has put in place more support needed to balance work and family life, Ms Shimada is less certain than discrimination based on sex has been eliminated.
âThere is a need to have women in decision-making processes in order to tackle the underlying discrimination,â she said. “At the moment, there is really no female participation.”
Mr Abe describes the womenomics as a success, but a string of recent scandals – from a leading medical school that rigged its entrance exams against women, to the resignation of the finance ministry’s top official for allegations of sexual harassment – highlighted a weakness at the heart of its policy.
The prime minister, critics say, has little to say about gender equality or Japan’s entrenched culture of gender discrimination. Rather, its aim is to boost Japan’s economic growth rate by employing more women.
“I am concerned that the government’s agenda for the advancement of women is not about gender equality but is ultimately a strategy to compensate for the labor shortages caused. by lowering the birth rate with cheap female labor, âsaid Kimio Ito, gender equality expert at Sangyo University in Kyoto.
Mr Abe’s government has focused heavily on barriers to work, such as lack of childcare, and has had some success. Compared to 2012, there are 2 million more women in the workforce. With female employment rates now comparable to those in many European countries, the increase in the number of working women has been an important factor in the recent wave of strong economic growth.
However, most of the increase relates to part-time or contract work. The number of women directors in state-owned enterprises has doubled, but only to 3.7% of the total, while a target for women to occupy 30% of management positions by 2020 has been hastily dropped . Rather than giving women the prospect of equal careers, Mr. Abe’s main success has been to bring older women back into the workforce.
Miyoko Tsujimura, gender equality lawyer at Meiji University, said: âAlthough the current government is fundamentally conservative, the prime minister has no choice but to call for the advancement of women for economic reasons. But it’s just the tatemae [âthe face you show to the worldâ], and Japan has always left its true feelings ambiguous about the role of women.
Mr. Abe’s own rhetoric supports this concern: the term he often uses is not ‘gender equality’ but josei katsuyaku, which translates to âparticipation of womenâ or âpromotion of womenâ. In last year’s speech at the World Assembly of Women conference, he praised the success of women scientists and entrepreneurs, but said nothing about the discrimination against them.
Researchers say this ambiguity about gender equality has deep roots. In 1947, when the American occupiers drafted its constitution, Japan became one of the first developed countries to outlaw discrimination based on sex. But the country has been slow to put the concept into practice. A clear gender division of labor contributed to rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s: wages of wage earners increased with long hours of work while women stayed at home to care for children or held jobs. part-time poorly paid.
âThe decline in the birth rate was already evident from the 1990s onwards, but Japan was unable to break out of the 1970s and 1980s gender model due to what it considered a successful experiment,â said Mr. Ito.
The past two decades were not considered so happy, as a largely stagnant economy that showed such a strict division of labor was no guarantee of growth.
Changing that gender model, however, will require Mr. Abe to do more than just build kindergartens. The apparent motivation behind the rigging of exams at Tokyo Medical University was the desire to have more male doctors, who don’t take maternity leave.
âIn the past, companies were reluctant to accept large numbers of employees because they were likely to quit after childbirth,â said Yoko Yajima, senior research analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting. âNow they are reluctant to do this because the employees will continue to work, but often with restrictions on working hours. “
Ms Yajima said a solution to such discrimination was unlikely unless companies accepted that an equal workforce could not work Japan’s traditional long hours.
âDiscrimination against women will only be addressed if companies can provide an environment in which employees can be promoted even if they have restrictions on their working hours,â Ms. Yajima said. “They need to realize that diversity is good for the organization.”
Letter in response to this report:
Equality in the workplace means exactly that / By Yvonne M Hilst, Amsterdam, The Netherlands