Japan needs resolve to advance women

Not only does Japan have a low fertility rate, it also trails in promoting women's social participation. In a keynote address to the Tokyo symposium, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, noted Japan's low rate of female labor force participation and wide gender gap in wages, compared with other OECD member states. Raising female labor force to the average level of the G-7 could raise income per capita by 4%," she said.

"Excluding women does not make economic sense." Japan lags behind not just other industrialized economies but also most other Asian nations. In Japan, the propor-
tion of women in managerial positions is around 10%, compared with 30-40% in the U.S. and European countries. In Asia, the Philippines has a remarkably high rate of nearly 50%. In Singapore and Hong Kong, it is more than 30%, and in Malaysia over 20%.

... Japan has become a showcase of the challenges facing Asia ...

The World Economic Forum ranked Japan 105th out of 136 countries in its 2013 Global Gender Gap Index report. The Philippines placed fifth, the highest in Asia. Singapore was 58th and Thailand 65th. South Korea came in 111th, the only Asian economy more unequal than Japan. The index is compiled based on economic, political, education- and health-based criteria. Low female representation in the economy and politics contributed significantly to Japan's poor ranking. But this is a phenomenon common to many Asian countries, so it may be seen not as a problem peculiar to Japan, but one that is most evident in Japan.

As shown, Japan has become a showcase of the challenges facing Asia and other countries in the pursuit of female empowerment. It is in this setting that Abe has launched his initiative toward making Japan "a place where women shine," and is a reason why his move is drawing attention.

How to help women play more active role in the economy in Japan?

Roughly 100 people, including business and political leaders from 24 countries, participated in the Tokyo symposium. One of the two main themes of discussion at working groups at the event was how to help women play more active roles in the economy in Japan. Group members dealt with questions of how companies and other organizations should tackle  this, and of how social infrastructure could better support working women.

Through their lively discussions, members showed a common understanding that it will hardly be possible to reach these aims without significantly changing society. Long-standing male dominance is still much in evidence in Japanese society. A package of recommendations put together by the Tokyo symposium pointed out the need for Japan to carry out unprecedented change in working styles, not half-measures, and to change the way male workers, especially middle managers, think about the situation.

It will not be easy, though, to move out of the traditional -- previously successful -- patterns. These include: working long hours, which sustained business growth despite low worker productivity; Japanese-style labor practices, such as lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion; and the mentality of a male-oriented society. Top executives at businesses and other organizations who commit to supporting women's careers can be a major driving force. But it will take more than their existence to achieve such goals.

It requires society as a whole to undergo changes, which range from more active participation of men in child rearing and household duties to the review of social systems such as taxation and social security.

... easier said than done

However, as the saying goes: easier said than done. Now that Abe has declared at this high-profile event his initiative to promote women's advancement, his govern-
ment must have a firm resolve to achieve this goal, and not flinch at the difficulty involved in the reforms needed.

Shatter the glass ceiling for women in Japan, says IMF's Lagarde

„She said she sees encouraging signs that government policy, economic necessity and ‘corporate peer pressure’ could bring about real change.“

Q: You have stressed that Japan's economic growth depends on greater employment of women. Why?

A: In addition to the monetary and fiscal measures that have been taken under Abenomics, structural reforms are critical for growth in Japan. And one of those structural reforms is a labor market that is more fluid, more flexible, more efficient, and welcomes women. That's point No. 1. Point No. 2: There is a gender gap between men and women that could be reduced, and there is a gender wage gap that should be reduced. By having more women joining the job market, equally paid, you can ge-
nerate additional growth, which we have measured to be 4% per capita in the medium term.

Q: Why have you focused on the workforce participation of Japanese women?

A: I think what is special about Japan is the rapid aging of society and the expected significant reduction of the working age population. So this is very peculiar to the Japanese economy, No. 1. No. 2, together with Korea, Japan is at the very low end of women's participation in the workforce, the gender gap as well as the gender wage gap within the (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. A third point: Japanese women are unbelievably talented and well-
educated. They go to university and succeed, have great diplomas and training, and then they drop out of the workforce because of a combination of policy reasons, cultural reasons and a lack of corporate-sector determination to keep them in the workforce.

Q: Do you think the nation can change?

A: In the past, there was a lot of lip service paid to the principles of diversity, work-life balance. But now, there is a combination of governmental pressure, economic imperative and corporate peer pressure that should really support the advancement of women and retaining of women within jobs. And hopefully the breaking of the glass ceiling as well.

Q: Many Japanese women have difficulty juggling motherhood and work. Did you struggle with this yourself?

A: Sure. Even with a very supportive partner, it is often the mother who feels ultimately responsible for the children. So being both a responsible mother and an accom-
plished professional is a challenge. That is why child care facilities, good policies and a change of culture are so important to help women achieve both their professio-
nal goals and their parental obligations.

Q: You are the first woman to lead the IMF. You were also the first woman to become the finance minister of a G-7 country. What's the secret to becoming a successful leader among men?

A: A good sense of humor. Enough selfesteem, confidence in yourself. And being inclusive yourself: Don't treat men as your enemies but make sure they become your allies.

Q: What was the biggest challenge in your career, and how did you overcome it?

A: There are lots of challenges all the time. But probably the biggest is the challenge that you have inside yourself. Sometimes you doubt. Whenever you see that little doubt character inside yourself, you have to fight back. Which is why I always have this motto about tough moments: Grit your teeth and smile. I was lucky because, throughout my life, I was given enough confidence by other women – sometimes men as well – who pushed me along the way and who said, "Come on, you can do it. You can do it." If you hear that voice echoing inside yourself enough, that helps.




Christine Lagarde

Christine Lagarde, the IMF's managing director, speaks during an interview in Tokyo on Sept. 12.


To read the full texts look at: “Japan needs resolve to advance women” (issue: MARKETS IN YOUR PALM, Sep 22-28, p.23) “Shatter the glass ceiling for women in Japan, says IMF’s Lagarde” (issue: HONG KONG CORNERED, Sept 29-Oct 05, p.24)

Source: Nikkei Asian Review