Women at work – a slow moving wave

For some years now, female employment and promotion have been on Japan’s to-do list. But government policies – and related private sector initiatives – have so far fallen short.

Even with public “Womenomics” targets, offerings of flexi-time, and the creation of daycare spots, women continue to make up two-thirds of Japan’s ‘non-regular’ contract and part-time employees. This means their commitment to the job is often questioned – leaving most of the full-time jobs to men.

Still, it seems that change is in the air. Firms and families are currently being asked by Prime Minister Abe to consider how workplace and domestic cultures in Japan can be redesigned to benefit men and women alike.

Last Friday, October 21, I attended The Economist’s annual Japan Summit, where to my mind the best, and arguably most dynamic, panel discussion was: “Women at work – a slow moving wave”.

The panelists were:

  • Kaori Sasaki, founder and chief executive officer, ewoman
  • Machiko Osawa, director of research, Institute for Women and Careers, Japan Women’s University
  • Fujiyo Ishiguro, president and chief executive officer, Netyear Group

Three of what I consider to be the session’s most thought-provoking points, are below.

Daycare dilemma

  • “Don’t extend daycare opening hours; instead change corporate culture so parents can pick up kids on time.”

It’s universally accepted that working hours in Japan are brutal. Being the first to leave the office (or ‘on time’) comes with a stigma. It is usual practice to announce “お先さきに失礼しつれいします or ‘Please forgive me for leaving before you’, on your way out the door. This, however, is not usually enough to counter disapproving glances from colleagues, who feel that you don’t take your work seriously. I’ve heard that some companies are attempting to ban the ‘self-shaming’ phrase.

Since many white collar parents need to commute from city centres to the suburbs to pick up their kids after work, it could be argued that to support working families Japan needs to extend daycare hours beyond the usual closing time of 6pm.

However, rather than dealing with the root cause of long working hours, this move could prove ever-more disruptive to the family unit, with employees feeling pressured to work even later, and young children being left in facilities until 7pm or 8pm, or beyond.In order to normalise mid-week family-time for working parents, there needs to be a mindset shift. All employees – whether male or female, with children or childfree – should be more forgiving of each other, and various extra-curricular obligations. Leave the office on time, and don’t apologise for it.

Paternity leave
  • “If men take childcare leave, they should automatically get promoted (rather than being penalized, which is the case currently).”

In 2014, only 2.3% of eligible male employees took advantage of the Japanese Government’s rather progressive policy that allows them to take up to 1 year of leave, with over 60% of their base salary being paid by the employment insurance system.

Japanese men, it seems, are still reluctant to take any time off work – especially for family reasons – largely due to fear of losing status and / or being sidelined on the promotion track. The nation’s traditional life-time employment system promotes (usually male) employees based on length of service. Once you step off the track – missing some company social events in the evening, or taking sick days – you are soon overlooked.

Essentially, the private sector needs to start sprinting in order to catch up with Government policy, since penalising workers for taking what is owed to them by law is simply wrong. Applying to take parental leave, whether you are a man or a woman, should not call into question your commitment to your job.

Should taking leave mean that you are automatically granted a promotion? Perhaps not. What we really need in the workplace is meritocracy – employees being rewarded for skill and performance.

Still, Kaori Sasaki’s bold suggestion about paternity leave leading to promotion gets us thinking about HOW to incentivise “good” (21st century, liberal) work behaviours in order to impel change. And it also leads us to question how Japan can disincentivise presenteeism, or promotions based solely on length of service and / or how long you can sit at a desk – or an izakaya (pub) table.

Shared domestic duties

  • “How many meals have you shared with your family, in the past 20 years (to all the Japanese businessmen in the audience)?”

The traditional Japanese family unit has deeply entrenched gender-based roles; the father is the breadwinner and the mother is the homemaker. To this day, in the overwhelming majority of families, women are the default parents, left to take care of the household and dish up the evening meal while men are working and / or drinking late with colleagues. In OECD studies on domestic duties, Japanese men are said to be some of the most unhelpful in the world.

Over the past few years, some changes have taken place. In various media interviews, Prime Minister Abe acknowledges that women cannot play a more active role in the county’s workforce unless housekeeping and childcare obligations are shared by husbands and fathers. Around town, it’s more common to see fathers doing daycare drop off and pick ups. And the ikumen (“active fathers”) phenomenon is gaining ground.

But Sasaki-san’s question led to nervous, knowing chuckles around the room; Japanese men have been programmed to believe that spending time at home in the evenings with your family raises doubts about your commitment to your job.

To redress the balance, two things need to happen in tandem:

  • We need to make immediate changes at home. This includes recognising childcare and domestic duties as family (rather than women’s) issues. Both parents, particularly in double-income households, should be equal contributors.
  • Bosses need to get smart. Pressures of overtime, unpredictability of hours, and location changes on a whim are not helpful for male or female employees, and can prove detrimental to the creation of a balanced family unit.

Easier said than done, perhaps?

To make practical inroads, rather than speaking of men and women, fathers and mothers, we should start to think more generally about “parents” and “parenting”. The same rules and expectations should apply to both genders – at home and at work – and being at the same table for dinner is surely a simple, measurable starting point for change.

Only a Japanese problem?

It could be said that many of the points above are not unique to Japan. Globally, gender equality and the notion of ‘women at work’ continues to be a slow moving and uneven wave.

On a more positive note, although change in Japan takes time, once a directive has been given the entire nation can mobilize at lightening speed (a recent example would be the ‘cool biz’ movement).

Call me naive, but I truly believe that Japan, with its progressive government policies buoyed by some solid private sector support, perhaps including some of the practical ideas touched upon above, has the potential to become the global champion for working women . . .

What do you think?