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What Holds Back Japanese Women

Ichiro Suzuki ‘Diversity’ is a popular buzzword in Japan in the 21st century. This imported word is usually narrowly interpreted as promoting women, often disregarding people who belong to other minority categories such as those of different color or LGBTQ. Nonetheless, the Japanese society is ‘officially’ making an effort to embrace women, especially at corporate and government offices. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a strong push to make women flourish as a part of his strategy to revitalize the Japanese economy. He even created a new ministerial position to advance women in the economy. Abe’s government has decided that women should have a better place in the corporate world with better opportunities, at least as good a place as it is in the government. Told top-down, self-proclaimed leaders in Corporate Japan made great strides in creating an enhanced working environment for their female employees, allowing them to take longer days off for giving births and raising infant kids. Local governments on the other hand are building nursery schools for small children and giving women a financial support for fertility treatment. While male dominated culture at offices is yet to change more distinctly, even that has begun to ditch past practices driven by COVID-19. Large corporations allow people to work from home though bosses might want them back in the office as much as possible. After-work drinking with a boss has become much less common. It is a practice that excludes young mothers who have to take care of their children. So everything is going to a right direction, it seems on the surface. So it remains to be seen what kind fruit would be brought in 2030 by efforts over the last ten years. Unfortunately not so much, probably. There is more than a reasonable chance that the country is still lamenting in 2030 on low presence of women in a variety of fields. One of the biggest stumbling blocks against women’s career is found at home. Women are disproportionately burdened with household chore and raising kids. While the country is making top-down efforts to move up women in the society as well as at offices, men are not particularly cooperative at home, leaving much of jobs at home to their wives. Coronavirus-induced work-from-home environment created more to do at home and women had to shoulder the majority of increased burdens. Men’s mindset has not kept up with that of women, not aligned with the direction the government want the Japanese society to head to. There are problems on the part of women, too. They really don’t drive themselves hard for more. They are not often ambitious enough. Women, therefore, do not end up with competing with men after high school. Women hold back themselves, perhaps because of a tacit but pervasively held belief deep in the Japanese society that women don’t have to go very far. Maybe they grew up at a house where their parents kept preaching their daughters that girls didn’t have to be too ambitious and too aggressive on their careers, and perhaps even telling them to find a good husband at college campus. Young girls’ female friends whom they grew up with might not be really interested in career development, influencing themselves each other. To young girls who do well in science at school, their parents often tell them to become a medical doctor that assures a well-respected and well paying profession, rather than pursuing an engineering career, and they listen to the parents. As a result, only one in five students at the University of Tokyo are women, and only one in four at seven former ‘imperial universities’, including the University of Tokyo, that have been leading Japan’s higher education for well over a century. At Waseda and Keio, top-notch private universities in the country, women represent only one in three. On top of it, at these universities, female students are heavily concentrated in the departments of literature and education. Women represent half the student body elsewhere on earth including Asia. It looks Confucius traditions are still pervasive only in Japan but have faded in the rest of Asia. Only a fraction of women who advance to higher education pursue a professional business career. Such a smaller universe of aspiring women makes these women’s life more difficult than it should be. At office, women find it hard to meet a role model, whom they seek advices and whom they try to emulate. Such an office environment doesn’t contribute to building confidence in themselves, making them less aggressive, and making them want less than they are entitled to. According to McKinsey Global Institute, women represent only 3% of management at Japanese corporations, dwarfed by 21% in the U.S. and 18% in the U.K., where these numbers are still considered as too low. Only 17% of Japanese corporations have at least one woman on the management team, as opposed to 73% in the U.S., and 76% in the U.K. A lot still has to change in Japan, while infrastructure to advance women is in place essentially. Universities would have to make more conscious efforts to recruit girls into departments other than literature and education, in order to expand the universe of women who would try to pursue a career that is beyond what typical Japanese women have been engaged with. Quotas might be considered. Business schools in the U.S. dramatically increased female students’ enrollment in the last couple of decades with clear numerical targets at institutions that used to be male-dominated. That said, it was perhaps made possible in the U.S. because of the country’s tradition in affirmative action. Any attempt to do the same thing in Japan would face fierce oppositions that might be hard to overcome. About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based on in Tokyo, Japan.


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