Abenomics’ Women Problem

By Yuriko Koike

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the United Nations General Assembly last week, he emphasized his determination to build a society in which women shine. Indeed, creating opportunities for women in the workforce is an essential pillar of the government’s reform program, so-called “Abenomics.”

Abe is clearly on the right track. According to an analysis by researchers at Goldman Sachs, closing the gender gap could boost GDP by 9% in the United States and nearly 13% in Japan. During his stay in New York, Abe also discussed “womenomics” with Hillary Clinton, who had made empowering women in the economy a key policy goal during her tenure as US Secretary of State.

Abe, strange to say, is the first Japanese leader to grasp that the underutilization of women’s skills has been holding back Japan’s economy. Japan ranked 105th out of 136 countries in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2013,” down from 101st place in 2012.

The problem begins in Abe’s own domain – politics. In his cabinet reshuffle earlier this month, five female ministers were appointed, but in the face of strong opposition from male MPs. More important, the appointments amounted to painting over the cracks: Only 39 of the 480 members of the Japanese Diet’s lower house, or 7.9%, are women. The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Japan 158th out of 189 countries in terms of its ratio of female MPs.

Things are just as bad at lower levels of government, where women account for a mere 13.1% of representatives in local parliaments, more than 40% of which have no female members at all. As the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe should instruct local party branches to choose more female candidates to run in next April’s local elections. But, at least so far, Abe seems to lack the will to do so (though he may choose to work with local party bosses behind the scenes to bring in more women).

It is also worrying that some of the women Abe has selected for his cabinet and for key party posts are arch-conservatives who advocate that women stay at home and take care of children. Given this, one cannot help feeling uncertain about the credibility of his womenomics initiatives.

That is especially true when one considers the lack of women in corporate management positions. Everyone at the meeting of the Keidanren, the Federation of Economic Organizations, to welcome US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy were men in dark suits.

In 2003, Norway revised its corporation law to state that companies that failed to place women in 40% of management positions could face delisting. If the same law were applied to Japan today, every company would be delisted.

Women currently hold an estimated 9% of senior management positions in Japan, compared to 40% in the Philippines, 24% in France, and 22% in the United States. One reason that Japan’s consumer electronics manufacturers are no longer world-beaters is that they have not fully used their female employees in managerial positions, despite their varied experiences.

The exceptions are instructive. When Akira Matsumoto became CEO of the Japanese snack manufacturer Calbee, he began appointing both female executives and foreigners to the company’s leadership. Revenues and earnings have increased, and net sales have grown threefold. Though there is no proof that the former caused the latter, Matsumoto’s commitment to lead in this area suggests that corporate dynamism may well increase with a more prominent role for women. Likewise, Daiwa Securities CEO Shigeharu Suzuki has appointed women as executive officers to improve sales capabilities, with promising results.

Although the employment rate of women in Japan reached 69.5% in 2013, more than 60% of women leave the workplace prematurely, mostly owing to childbirth. This pattern results from institutional impediments to achieving a viable work-family balance – impediments that embody the harsh view of male superiors and colleagues toward working mothers.

Changing this view is not easy, because the Confucian belief that women belong in the home remains embedded in Japanese and some other Asian societies. Moreover, most of the people participating in forums or workshops focused on womenomics are women; too often, these events simply turn into platforms for women to complain among themselves. Abe’s womenomics will not work unless and until Japanese men change their thinking.

If Abenomics is now stalling, as many fear, the reason may be found in a lack of capacity to implement the policies put forward, particularly with respect to women. Indeed, the key to Abenomics’ success or failure may turn out to be whether the Japanese people are convinced that women are essential to their country’s economic revival, and are willing to support an earnest effort to establish institutions that support working women.

Formerly published on project-syndicate.org