Tokyo—Two years after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made women’s advancement a top policy priority, statistics suggest Japan’s male-dominated workplaces have evolved slightly, but they also highlight the deep-seated societal forces keeping the gender gap alive.
The central government exceeded its 30-percent target for the hiring of women for career-track positions, raising the rate to 34 percent this year from 24 percent last year, according to the latest Cabinet Office data.
In the private sector, women make up a slightly higher percentage of managers and presidents than they did two years ago, though men still make up more than 90 percent of both categories.
Japan lags behind most other industrial countries in women’s participation and advancement in business, academics and politics. Abe’s “womenomics” policy aims to put more women to work to counter a chronically low birthrate and shrinking workforce, but a business culture in which long hours are routine makes it more difficult for women to get ahead. That’s because women often have not only the bulk of child-care duties, but also the responsibility for providing care for elderly parents.
Women represent only 11 percent of all managers and supervisors, and a key reason, many say, is the impossibility of balancing work and family commitments that are viewed as a lower priority by both employers and co-workers. Sixty percent of working women quit jobs with the birth of a first child, according to labor ministry data.
“I’m pushing myself to the limits of my capacity, and I feel bad about imposing a lot on my children, always rushing,” says Aya Oikawa, 35, who returned to her job at an apparel company in April after an eight-month maternity leave to have her second child.
Oikawa is supposed to work an hour and half less than the normal nine hours, so she can pick up her kids at child care. But she’s routinely asked to put in overtime, forcing her to sprint to get the children before the nursery closes, pick up groceries and get the kids fed, bathed and in bed by 9 p.m.
Exhausted, she is sometimes dozing when her husband finally gets home. What’s left for him? Dishes and taking out the garbage — typical for most husbands.
Instead of leaning in for more career opportunities, Oikawa is considering switching to a less demanding job and says she’s not interested in leadership roles. She said the few women she has seen in her company who have taken on such positions were all single and sacrificed everything for work.
“If that’s what it takes, I’m not interested,” Oikawa said.
And while more is being asked of Japanese women in the working world, men do not appear to be stepping it up at home. Annual surveys by the Cabinet Office, in charge of gender equality, show that married Japanese men spend only about an hour a day on chores and childrearing, and only 2 percent of working fathers have taken paternity leave.
Abe’s policies do not address the problem of excessively long working hours or of hiring and pay practices that keep many single or divorced mothers locked into low-paying, part-time contract jobs, experts say. Unfavorable treatment of working mothers is so endemic that there is even a Japanese word for it: mata-hara, or maternity harassment. AP