Japan’s female future

13-Mar-2019 Intellasia | Strategy | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Demographic realities and the growing number of women in higher education are changing the male-dominated management structures of Japan Inc.

The Japanese corporation, like Japanese society itself, has long been a rather rigid affair, with conservative HR policies and overwhelmingly male in its leadership and character. This is all poised to change, potentially dramatically, over the next two decades. Japan promises to have a far more female future, one that will challenge corporations to become more flexible, creative, and diverse.

On any measure of gender equality, Japan fares abysmally in comparison with other advanced democratic countries. It ranks 110th in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, flanked by Mauritius and Belise. Only about one in 10 leadership positions, in organisations of all kinds, are currently held by women. The only comfort, perhaps, is that its neighbour and corporate rival, South Korea, fares even worse with its ranking, at 115th.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in 2012, has promoted the message of letting “women shine,” and he rightly boasts that Japan’s female labour force participation rate has now risen above that in the United States. However, at just under 70 percent of women ages 15 to 64, that rate nevertheless remains below levels in Europe and Canada (75 to 80 percent), and is far below the participation rate of 85 percent for Japanese males. In any case, a greater quantity of jobs for women has not brought greater quality; more than one-third of women are working part time, and roughly the same proportion report in surveys that they are overqualified for their job. Moreover, in his reshuffled government announced in October 2018, Abe found room for just one female cabinet minister.

The present and past look dismal, but that does not mean that Japan cannot and will not change. In fact, the country looks destined to do so, for reasons of both supply and demand. The supply of well-educated, professional women surged in the 1990s and 2000s, having lagged badly in earlier decades. And given that Japan is suffering a labour shortage as the working-age population slowly shrinks, demand for that female talent pool is increasing every year. There are no longer sufficient males to take all the good jobs.

Japan is a very age-conscious and hierarchical society, so the paltry share of women in leadership roles today reflects the huge gender gap in access to tertiary education and corporate recruitment that prevailed when those who are now in their early 50s were graduating from high school, back in the 1980s. At that time, as seen below in “University entrants in Japan,” only around 10 to 12 percent of 18-year-old girls went on to four-year university courses, compared with 35 to 40 percent of boys. Most girls had to make do with two-year “junior colleges,” which condemned them to an inferior status.



Category: Japan

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