Japan’s work culture is in many ways a legacy of decades past, a time when most women got married, quit their jobs and raised a family, while their husbands became the sole breadwinner with long work hours. Unfortunately, raising a family and caring for elderly family members has stereotyped women as the lesser valued gender in the eyes of an employer. The coronavirus is giving this inequality a shake-up. What is surprising is that this is not the first time this need for equality has taken the spotlight. The end of the 1990s Lost Decade was the final decade where the country’s birth rate would exceed the death rate and salaried men alone were no longer adequate in the labour market elevating the need for temporary workers and women’s participation. But, not enough was done.
This time, as a result of the pandemic, the widespread “work from home” necessity became the alternative to Japan’s typical long office hours and time-consuming travel. Suddenly, an employee could balance work and home life. Companies found themselves reforming conventional time-based working styles to a Western-style results-based system that rewards productivity. This meant women who traditionally were caring for children or elderly family members ‘could’ flexibly enter or re-enter the workforce with work and family balance.
“Could” is the operative word. But, is Japan ready to allow women into the workforce with equal status to men? To put the severity of gender inequality gap into perspective let’s look at the statistics. In 2019, Japan ranked low on the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap rankings –121st among 153 countries. And in 2018, in last place among major advanced economies. Women held only 15 percent of senior and leadership positions in the business field. Earnings have been much less than men with many women working without permanent positions. In 2018, men in Japan earned 5.45 million yen (USD $52,000) on average, nearly twice as much as women who made 2.93 million yen ($28,000). Part of the reason is that the majority of women who worked in temporary and part-time positions, left the labor force out of guilt, feeling compelled to sacrifice their career or professional life for domestic duties as per the old-fashioned mindset that child-rearing is a woman’s job. An IMF Working Paper found women rather than men often face greater responsibility and guilt than men toward family obligations such as cooking and elderly caregiving. Because they are willing to sacrifice pay to avoid overtime, men are quite simply the preferred employee over women. Service sector jobs like retail, restaurants and tourism were the hardest hit with positions largely held by women. And to add insult to injury, many of those positions were non-regular jobs that didn’t offer the same benefits and job security of regular jobs.
For the progress of equality, the government needs to have a far greater sense over the degree of which women’s incomes and labor participation rates have dropped. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognized the need for women in the workplace. However, his call for better utilization of the country’s female population and promise to fill 30% of leadership positions nationwide and plans to increase jobs with benefits for security as well as positions of power by 2020 fell by the wayside with the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office on Sept. 16, 2020. He said one of his key policy goals is to establish an agency to promote digitalization to support the work from home transition. Digital transformation minister Takuya Hirai said he thinks a woman should head this government agency stating on a satellite television program by Nippon Television Network Corp., “In the digital world, meetings held overseas are dominated by women. At digital-related meetings in Japan, all I see are men in black.” His recognition of the inequality is certainly a start. But, actions speak louder than words.
The pandemic has knocked down the stiff office door for flexible work hours bringing both men and women at an even keel to work from home. Next, if the new government can bring awareness to women’s struggles with intimidation during the hiring process, and limited participation of women in science and other college/university programs catered toward managerial occupations, Japan just might move in the right direction of managerial equality for the next generation.