The weak status of women in the Japanese professional environment has changed minimally throughout the past decades and the country’s economy is suffering from their absence.
Le level of higher education in Japan is amongst the highest in the world, according to the OECD, but when women leave university their potential is wasted. In fact, female participation in the labor force in Japan is currently 63%, which is far lower than the one in other rich countries.
Japan’s female rate of employment has practically remained unchanged since the 1990s. In other highly patriarchal countries like Italy, the percentage of women between 25-54 in the labor market has gone from 54% to 72% between 1990 and 2010 (Blau and Kahn, 2013).
This suggests how strong the traditional family values are in Japan, in drawing a clear distinction between the roles of men and women in society. For example, a former health minister of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) believed strongly that the country would benefit if the “baby-making machines”, as he put it, stayed home and made more babies.
This assumption however proved to be wrong. After the LDP encouraged women to stay home, the already low fertility rate shrunk to a level of 1.41 children per woman in 2012. In contrast, the fertility rate in 2011 in the US was 1.89, in China 1.58, and in India 2.59.
While the benefits for society of encouraging women to work in the household are uncertain, the costs of this are extremely high.
Goldman Sachs has evaluated that raising female labor participation to the level of men’s would add 8million people to Japan’s shrinking workforce, and this could result in an increase in GDP of almost 15%.
With this in mind, the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also belongs to the conservative LDP, has decided to invert the traditionalist trend and change the situation.
In April 2013 he declared that raising female participation was going to be the most important part of his ‘Abenomics’ growth strategy. By 2020 he would like women to occupy 30% of all the “leadership” positions, including members of parliament and corporate executives. The first steps to facilitate women’s greater integration in the work world has been to try to shorten waiting lists for child care, by introducing a larger number of private owned kindergartens among the state owned ones.
The road towards equality of opportunities in Japan is still long and complicated; it will have to go through political and economic reforms as well as changes in the widespread traditional mentality. Nevertheless, if the country policymakers succeed in raising female work participation to the level of men’s, those women will boost the economy and reform corporate culture.