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When measuring gender equity against other countries by categories such as Economic Participation and Opportunity, some say that Japan has a long way to go. However, look closer and one can see that Japan is well on its way to reaching the high levels of gender parity achieved in places like Scandinavia as well as Rwanda and the Philippines. For women working in or relocating to Japan, opportunities for success await them as the country makes considerable strides toward equality in the workplace.
In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced his vision to the country for women to shine in economic representation based on the prevailing evidence that a country as a whole benefits when women’s equality is reached. Reports from McKinsey and the Council on Foreign Relations found that women’s participation not only rapidly increases the growth of a country’s GDP, adds millions of new jobs and contributes $4.5 trillion to the Asia Pacific economy alone, but also positively affects the social and health outcomes for a country’s population. Abe dubbed his initiative to add more women to the workforce “Womenomics,” a term first coined by Kathy Matsui, vice chair of Goldman Sachs Japan. Abe touted it as a priority in his then-new administration, promising to bring Japan out from the low ranks of female economic participation among developed countries.
In the span of just six years, the investment in women has caused their employment rates to rise above that of the United States. According to its Internal Affairs Ministry, Japan added about 2.9 million women to the workforce between 2012 and 2018. In 2017 alone, three quarters of women between the ages of 25 and 39 held employment, a 5.9 percentage increase from 2012. These positive numbers are sure to continue growing as Japan grapples with its labor shortage. Despite reports of women’s economic representation growing, the country is still looking for innovative ways to address a population that is not only aging but having fewer children. One answer has been found in the country’s new immigration law passed late last year, which will go into effect this year. The goal of the new law is to implement a new visa system that will bring in an estimated 340,000 foreign workers in the next five years.
The new law is designed to address labor shortages in the trade, finance, and healthcare sectors. Luckily for women, female representation in the Finance and Insurance industry as well as the Real Estate industry in Japan is at its highest and continues to grow, providing opportunity for those with advanced education and training to use their skills. With a rapidly aging population in Japan, the need for healthcare workers is at an all-time high, further incentivizing workers to offer their skills and expertise where it is most needed. As women answer the call to these opportunities, they can rest assured that they’ll find networks of support in their specific sector in groups such as The Association for Women in Finance Tokyo or Women Who Code Tokyo who provide the space and information for their members to meet like-minded women in their field.
But when it comes to equal gender representation, quantity must meet quality as women demand more out of their roles in the workforce. Reporting shows a 10 percent increase of women in management positions in the private sector, and more firms in Japan are being directed to hire more women board members. For instance, beginning in 2021, companies like State Street plan to oppose the selection of members of board nominating committees at companies if there are no female board members present. Additionally, more firms are offering management and development training earlier in women’s careers to make it easier for them to return to high-level jobs if they choose to have children. And if they do, they will be adequately supported by Japan’s guaranteed maternity leave, which is not only offered for up to a year, but is also paid and has no income tax. Women with male partners who decide to jump back into their careers immediately after giving birth benefit from Japan’s guaranteed paternity leave that allows fathers to also take up to a year off while retaining the majority of their salary.
These initiatives show that when government and company policies both rise to the gender equality challenge, the outcome is a more level playing field for professional women. What is made clear is that equal representation in the Japan workforce also comes with a set of related needs not limited to job openings. Doors must be opened, but growth must also be fostered and social safety nets developed so that women’s demand for success is met after they step through the doorway. In Japan, the development of equitable policies demonstrates that the call to gender equality in the workforce doesn’t have to be an empty one. The result will be a further influx of women into the workforce both within Japan and from overseas, meeting challenges that match their advanced skillsets. Offered respect and upward mobility, women can look to the country for the future of workforce gender equality.