Interview: Are 'Womenomics' Working in Japan?

Joanna Barsh, Carol Gluck, and Naoko Ogawa assess whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” campaign can revitalize the Japanese economy through the economic power of women. Henny Sender moderates the conversation. (1 hr., 19 min.)

Amid a shrinking labor pool and a rapidly aging (and declining) population, Japan’s economy has for years been stagnant. One demographic that’s been identified as a potential counter-tide to this trend is Japanese women, who have far lower participation in the workforce and economy compared to women in other developed countries. Analysts have estimated that if this can be rectified, working women could boost Japan’s GDP by as much as 13 percent.

After coming to power in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kicked off his “Abenomics” policies to jump-start the economy through a myriad of initiatives. One key focus was women’s empowerment. “Abenomics won’t succeed without Womenomics,” he said.

Naoko Ogawa is senior manager for Women’s Empowerment at Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), an economic organization contributing to self-sustaining development of the Japanese economy and Japanese workers. In an interview with Asia BlogOgawa discussed what’s keeping Japanese women out of the workforce and how well “Womenomics” is working.

Japan now ranks 104th out of 142 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report, making it the second worst performer in Asia (ahead of only South Korea). Why is the situation so grim?

It seems that the rapid economic growth after World War II was such an unforgettably great success that people still believe in the male-oriented economic and social systems that enabled it. At that time, male-only homogeneous organization was suitable for mass-production. Women did everything at home so that men could work hard until late at night in order to meet ever-expanding demand. As globalization advances and Japan faces a falling birthrate and aging population, this model does not work anymore. Although Japan has realized the need to change and is now seriously committed to improving its situation, other countries are advancing much faster, as seen in the Gender Gap ranking.

What sorts of things are keeping Japanese women out of the workforce and lessening their impact on the economy?

Since the enforcement of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in 1986, the legal framework and the efforts of enterprises have produced various arrangements to support working mothers (and fathers), such as childcare leave and reduced working hours. Consequently, female workers in large companies these days mostly continue working even after marriage and childbirth; though some don’t come back from maternity leave due to a lack of nurseries, while some are forced to leave due to a transfer of their spouse. In such cases, these women can hardly find a new job since most corporations have lifetime employment and the labor market has little liquidity.

Now the main target is to increase the number of women working in managerial positions. Gender role stereotypes (i.e. men should work while women should do housekeeping, or men should do professional work while women should be assistants) are deeply rooted in the mentality of the Japanese. They keep women from actively pursuing a career and give their bosses unconscious gender bias in providing opportunities for career building. Also, long work hours and men's indifference to housework and child rearing discourage women with children from working in positions of responsibility.

In what ways is Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” initiative working, and in what ways is it failing?

Most of the remaining issues cannot be solved by legal frameworks or systems; they need reformation of people's mindset and culture. In that regard, clear commitment and strong leadership by the leaders are crucial. Thanks to the prime minister's initiative, awareness of the issue among the Japanese has certainly been raised. Today, CEOs of major companies would agree with the necessity of women's empowerment. This will form a firm basis for further improvement of the situation.

What has yet to be done is to address issues related not only to women, but to all people. This includes reforming work style to shorten work hours and find appropriate ways to share burdens in terms of housework and raising children. Japan will reach its goal only when "Womenomics" becomes "Humanomics" that everybody considers as his or her own business.

In your experience, how eager (or reluctant) are businesses to implement “Womenomics”?

Keidanren is requesting its member companies to formulate action plans on the promotion of female workers. Over 400 companies (which account for one-third of the total membership) have published their action plans on Keidanren's website. Most of the leading companies have been tackling the issue of women's empowerment for 10 years or more. A majority of these companies are in sectors where the proportion of female workers is relatively large, such as financial, retail, and cosmetics firms. Other businesses have started to address the issue over the past two years, inspired by Abe's "Womenomics." Though the level of achievement varies depending upon business type, industry, and business scale, etc., at least they have made clear their commitment to women's empowerment.

Abe has set the goal of getting 30 percent of managers in Japan to be female by 2020. Is this goal realistic, and is it the right goal to have?

The goal is effective in presenting a clear and ambitious goal to heighten the national momentum. However, the situation each corporation is facing in terms of women's empowerment is different. Some might be able to achieve 30 percent by 2020, but others might attain it later. It is not appropriate to impose a uniform goal on all, as a figure is not a goal in itself and can distort the efforts taken by corporations if it is misused. Therefore, each enterprise should proactively set an appropriate target based on its own circumstances. That's why we’re asking companies to formulate action plans.

Is there any success story that Japan should follow to get women to make more of an economic impact?

There is no single model to follow, as economic, social and cultural backgrounds differ from country to country. But Japan can learn from various experiences in other countries on issues like raising career awareness and building the capacity of female workers, reducing work hours by improving white-collar productivity, and more participation by fathers in child-raising. That’s why we participate in dialogues with people abroad.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Eric Fish

Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.