“Creating a society in which all women shine” is one of the defining policies of Abenomics. Thanks to the measures introduced under the policy since the Abe administration’s establishment in December 2012, some one million women have newly entered the labor market and the number of female corporate board members has increased by approximately 30%.
Women’s social advancement is one of the most important challenges facing Japan today. Traditionally Japanese society has held the view that mothers should stay at home and take care of the family’s children rather than continue or seek employment, and even today about 60% of women quit their jobs when they get married or give birth to their first child. Women tend only to return to the labor market once their children have grown up and left home, a tendency revealed in the downward portion of the so-called M-shaped curve describing women’s employment ( Figures 1 and 2) . Motherhood in other words is an obstacle to women’s empowerment and career building, the M-shaped curve symbolizing the loss to society when women withdraw from the workforce to look after their children.
Since its establishment in December 2012, the Abe administration has been working to increase the employment rate for women age 25–44 and radically change the shape of the curve. The target is to raise the employment rate in this age bracket from 68% in 2012 to 73% by 2020, and to increase the percentage of women in leadership positions to 30%.
On 28 August 2015, at the second World Assembly for Women (WAW! 2015), Prime Minister Abe stated the following in his opening address:
The greatest challenge facing Japan is our declining population, brought about by our aging society and falling birthrate. In the past, there was a widely seen tendency for a higher rate of female labor force participation to cause a lower birthrate. And yet, in the present day, the developed nations leading the world in the active engagement of women have both a high women’s labor force participation ratio and a high birthrate simultaneously. In particular, the countries of Northern Europe have been superbly successful at reconciling economic growth and rising birthrates under the banner of active participation by women. Japan also wants to emulate this, but our greatest barrier is a working culture that endorses male-centered long working hours. If men themselves do not awaken to this fact and take action, we will not be able to eliminate this bad practice. First of all, we will expand a corporate culture that values working efficiently within a limited number of hours. Husbands will also actively take childcare leave and couples will share responsibility for household chores and child rearing. We will make this the ordinary practice in Japan.
If the proportion of women in their 30s and 40s who are seeking work is brought in line with the figures seen in several Western countries, there will be significant potential for Japan’s economic growth. The Abe administration’s stated mission therefore is to develop an environment that enables mothers — and fathers — to continue in employment while sharing responsibility for the care of their children.
Specifically, the government has provided tax and other incentives to companies that encourage female participation in the workforce. The government has moreover implemented the Plan to Accelerate the Elimination of Childcare Waiting Lists, which will establish 200,000 new nursery school places by 2015 and 400,000 by 2018. Additionally, to address the issue of after-school care for elementary school students, particularly those in the first grade, the government will create 300,000 more places for them over the next five years.
Such measures under the policy for “Creating a society in which women shine” are itemized in the Japan Revitalization Strategy, the same Growth Strategy which set out the three arrows of Abenomics. Measures to “promote active participation by women” were itemized in the first edition of the Japan Revitalization Strategy of 2013 and have been continuously enhanced year by year (Table 1).
The number of women in the workforce has increased by more than 1 million since the start of the Abe administration (from 26.53 million in November 2012 to 27.72 million in June 2015). The number of women in managerial positions has also increased, from 6.9% in 2012 to 8.3% in 2014. Furthermore, about 440 companies (30% of the 1,300 Keidanren member companies) have announced plans to increase the number of female executives and managers.
To accelerate this trend, a bill on the Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace was adopted by the Diet on 28 August 2015. The Act requires companies with more than 301 employees to make action plans to promote women’s participation and advancement in the workplace. Companies must now set numerical targets further to an analysis of (1) the ratio of women workers in the total workforce, (2) the gender gap in the length of service, (3) working hours of the employees, (4) percentage of women in management positions and so on. The Act aims to put more women into positions with decision-making authority and further promote the womenomics principle.
The Japan Revitalization Strategy 2015 approved by the Cabinet in June 2015 itemizes the measures to be implemented to promote the social participation of women (Table 2). Such initiatives are seen in other policies of the ministries and agencies as well as in the private sector. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare for example will make a fiscal 2016 budgetary request to introduce a policy to promote paternity leave. In this way the government hopes to increase the paternity leave rate from 2.3 percent to 13 percent by fiscal 2020.
Japan is still some distance from being a gender-equal society, and the challenge of creating a society in which all women shine has really only just begun. One key to the creation of a gender- equal society will be a change in the mindset of men. The recent public and private initiatives in this respect are an important step in the right direction.
Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Discuss Japan. [September 2015]