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Japan – Push for workplace equality stalls

06 January 2014

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to raise participation rate of women as his government’s economic reforms continue, reports leaderpost.com. Since taking office a year ago, Mr Abe has made the advancement of women a pillar of his economic revival in order to combat the gender imbalance in the Japanese economy.

Although women make up 40% of Japan's workers, they face discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay. According to government data, a Japanese woman makes 70% of a man's wage for equal work.

Women held just 12% of private sector managerial jobs in 2012 and fared even worse at higher levels, making up only 5% of section chiefs. Some critics and women workers say they tend to be confined to second-class status and not taken seriously.

Women are under-represented in government as well, comprising 11% of the more powerful lower house of parliament, 18% of the upper house, and just 2.5% of managerial positions among public servants. Japan has a less fluid workforce than many Western countries, because employees tend to stay loyal to one company for life. That puts women at a disadvantage because they tend to take time off to have children and are then consigned to lower-rung jobs, according to analysts.. 60% of working women quit after their first child is born.

Women make up 3.9% of board members of listed Japanese companies, versus 12% in the U.S. and 18% in France, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Junko Fukasawa, a senior Managing Director at recruitment firm Pasona Group, commented: "Most major companies are not serious about utilising the talent of women. They are very male-dominated."

When Ms Fukasawa meets people from other companies, they often turn first to her male colleagues to exchange business cards, and are surprised to learn later that she is the boss.

Under Ms Fukasawa's leadership at human resources, Pasona has set up counselling for women executives and mentor programs. Male employees are encouraged to take paternity leave, dubbed a "hello baby vacation." Pasona has been deluged with queries from other companies trying to tackle Mr Abe's initiative, and turned the counselling on such requests into a new business.

Japan's birthrate is so low that the world's third-largest economy is running out of workers. Kathy Matsui, an analyst at Goldman Sachs Japan who invented the term "womenomics" to describe how working women can lift an economy, projects that Japan's workforce would expand by 8.2 million people if the gender gap were closed, boosting gross domestic product by up to +15%.

More than 300 companies surveyed by Keidanren, an organisation representing Japan's top 1,300 companies, promised to abide by Mr Abe's call for child care, flexible hours and awareness training.

However, no major company has responded with a high-profile female posting, even as the first female chief executive at General Motors makes headlines in the U.S. No Japanese company is among the 23 Fortune 500 companies run by women.

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