Japanese Women Are The Country’s Most Underutilized Asset

Taken from here.

Last week new data was revealed showing that 74% of Japanese women with degrees voluntarily quit their jobs, far more than the 31% of Americans and the 35% of Germans, according to the Center from Work-Life Policy, a New York-based think tank. The reasoning behind this is that Japanese women are even more negatively impacted by societal pressures than American women. They are pushed out by day care shortages and inflexible workplaces, and controlled and encouraged by society to only play the stay-at-home mom roll. A survey from earlier this year by the Nikkei financial daily found that women account for less than 1 percent of all executives at the top 500 Japanese companies, compared with more than 10% in the U.S. and U.K. The percentage of female managers overall — just over 10%— is far behind other advanced economies, according to the government’s Gender Equality Bureau.

However, Kimie Iwata, Vice President of Shiseido, one of the largest cosmetics companies in the world and one of Japan’s best known brands, is pushing for major changes. ”If you examine the root of this, it’s not ability or desire,” Iwata said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s because during maternity, women leave their jobs, and their careers fall to zero.” Once they leave, even if they decide to come back, their departure earlier has caused irrevocable damage. Companies won’t hire them as full-time employees. “And as a part-timer or contractor, no matter how hard you work, it’s nearly impossible to become a regular employee,” said Iwata.

In an economy that has already been struggling for decades and devastated by an earthquake, women are essential and they are not being used. With low birthrates and long lifespans, Japan’s population of 128 million is projected to shrink by more than a quarter by 2050. The elderly will account for some 40% of the country, while the working-age population that’s meant to support them decreases, according to government estimates. Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equity strategist for Goldman Sachs, describes women as Japan’s most underutilized asset. A 2010 Goldman Sachs report said that getting more women into the workforce could increase Japan’s GDP by as much as 15%. More women could also help increase the birthrates. Data shows that countries with relatively high percentages of working women also have robust birth rates. ”I’m optimistic because there’s no choice,” Matsui told the AP. “This country doesn’t have any options at all.” Iwata thinks change is possible and that Japanese society has actually improved quite a bit since the 1970s. Though Shiseido’s career climb is still considered unique.

Like American women, Japanese women also highly prioritize flexibility in their careers: 66% of women in the recently released data said they would not have quit their jobs if work arrangements allowed room for adjustments. But the idea of giving women time to drop their children off at daycare or allowing for telecommunication is a contrast for the very work-intensive Japanese culture. It puts a high emphasis on face time and the morning-to-midnight corporate commitment. This may contribute to the finding that 68% of Japanese women who identified themselves as career-minded or ambitious said they believed foreign companies are more woman-friendly than Japanese firms.

However, Shiseido is an example of a company that has made an effort to retain women. It opened day care facilities at its Tokyo headquarters in autumn 2003. It introduced systems for short-term parental leave and paid nursing care leave for children two years later. In 2006, it launched the “Kangaroo Staff” program, through which part-time workers fill in for Shiseido’s beauty consultants needing time to care for children. Iwata said now hardly any women quit after childbirth. After they take maternity leave they return and sometimes work reduced hours. The ratio of female managers climbed to 20% last year. But she wants this kind of set-up to be considered normal at all Japanese companies. Iwata doesn’t just want women to stay at these companies, she wants them to move up the ladder. ”We want to develop their careers regardless of gender. We want to have a lot of female managers and executives.” By 2013, the company hopes that 30% of its managers will be female. She thinks the best way to do that would be from starting from scratch and changing all of corporate culture, including how men are treated. Shiseido is cutting overtime hours and encouraging men to take paternity leave. The company is also looking to change evaluation systems that currently overlook productivity.

Photo: deepblue-photographer/Shutterstock.com

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