Japanese women face many obstacles returning to the workplaceÂ after having children.
By Michael Switow
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would like to seeÂ women comprise a larger percentage of his countryâsÂ workforce. Faced with a shrinking labour pool as babyÂ boomers and 1950s danso-generation men retire, AbeÂ placed women at the centre of his growth strategy inÂ 2013, declaring that he would create âa Japan in whichÂ women shine.â
To some extent, Abeâs efforts have borne fruit. At lastÂ yearâs World Economic Forum, Abe trumpeted two facts:Â Nearly 3 million women entered the workplace in theÂ preceding six years, and Japan now has a higher femaleÂ labour force participation rate than the United StatesÂ (74 per cent versus 71 per cent).
But these statistics mask a darker truth: The countryâsÂ gender pay gap is by far the largest of any advancedÂ economy, and the situation is getting worse. Out ofÂ 153 countries surveyed, Japan ranks 121st, in betweenÂ the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, according toÂ the World Economic Forumâs 2020 Global Gender GapÂ report. A little more than a decade earlier, JapanÂ ranked 80th. Japanese women, meanwhile, make aboutÂ 75 cents on the dollar as compared with their maleÂ counterparts.
The gender gap is exacerbated by cultural forces, includingÂ the expectation that women are primarily responsible forÂ child-rearing, which leads nearly half of Japanese womenÂ to quit work after having their first child.
âDomestic childcare is completely a motherâs problem,âÂ explains Global Staff CEO Kazumi Takahashi, and findingÂ childcare support can be particularly challenging.Â The trend is so pronounced that thereâs a JapaneseÂ economics term for it: the âM Curve.â Plot womenâsÂ labour force participation versus age, and the graph,Â which resembles a letter M, shows women leaving theÂ workforce to marry and have children in their twentiesÂ and thirties, and then re-entering in their forties.
That re-entry, though, can be difficult.Â âJapanese companies have a strong culture of recruitingÂ new graduates and are very reluctant to hire womenÂ with âcareer blanks,ââ says Waris Co-CEO Miwa Tanaka,Â using a term that is common in Japan to describe peopleÂ who have stepped out of the workforce. On top of that,Â âWomen with career blanks are not confident, so it isÂ difficult to take a step towards reemployment.â
Even when women do re-enter the workforce, they areÂ still largely responsible for maintaining the home andÂ raising children. Each week, Japanese women spend fiveÂ to seven times longer doing domestic work than theirÂ husbands, according to Japanâs National Institute ofÂ Population and Social Security Research.
âTime managementâjuggling full-time work, childcare,Â and other houseworkâis a challenge. This is particularlyÂ pronounced when husbands are not supportive,â notesÂ Nobuko Kobayashi, a partner at EY-Parthenon in Tokyo.
âIt is a very difficult skill in Japanese society to achieveÂ a balance between being a âmotherâ and âworkingÂ woman,ââ says Career Mam Founder and CEO KanaeÂ Tsutsumi. âPTA and school briefings, for example, areÂ held during the daytime on weekdays, so if you want toÂ participate, you have to take a break from the companyÂ frequently. This can annoy your boss and customers, andÂ you may miss out on a promotion.â
In the face of these challenges, a growing number ofÂ Japanese human resources firms, like Career Mam,Â Global Staff, and Waris, now cater to mothers whoÂ are ready to return to the workplace. Some focus onÂ placements whilst others provide women with the skillsÂ and confidence to work independently.
But these efforts have to confront another structuralÂ trend that is also hampering moves towards genderÂ equality: the steady rise of contingent labour, from 15Â per cent in the early 1980s to nearly 40 per cent today.
âThis surge in non-regular jobs is the most importantÂ shift in employment of the past three decades; it isÂ arguably the most notable change in Japanese workingÂ life since the 1960s,â writes Harvard Professor AndrewÂ Gordon.
Full-time workers typically enjoy seniority-based raisesÂ and promotions, while contract and part-time workersÂ do not. Lower-earning, part-time roles account for moreÂ than half of all female jobs in the country, accordingÂ to government statistics, despite the fact that a recordÂ number of womenâmore than 30 millionâhaveÂ entered Japanâs workforce.
âWomen returning to work typically have a hard timeÂ getting full-time work,â notes Kobayashi, and whenÂ they do, they are at greater risk of being put on theÂ âmommy track,â sidelined without a serious chance ofÂ promotion.
So, while Abe can truthfully trumpet an increase in theÂ number of Japanese working women, much more workÂ needs to be done if he is to close the countryâs genderÂ gap.