Womenomics in Japan: not just a “women’s issue”

My first impressions about the gender divide in Japan continue to be validated as I have lived here for several more months.

Despite having one of the highest rates of females who have completed higher education, Japan’s female labor force participation is low, well below that of the United States, Australia, the UK and Singapore. Women also drop out of the workforce at a much higher rate than other countries. 

My experience from living here, from reading the news, and from talking to Japanese people is that once women get married, they are expected to drop out of the workforce. Last week I wrote about First Lady Akie Abe’s thoughts that it is “too demanding for women to work” once they are married or have children, due to the expectations of them for managing the “house work”.

Not just a “women’s” issue but a societal issue

When people talk about “womenomics” and bringing women into the workforce, the conversation is framed primarily as a “women’s issue”, rather that a broader societal issue.

Changing the expectations for men – at work and at home – is often a missing element when I hear people talk about “Abenomics” programs to support women working (additional childcare facilities, more nanny visas for foreigners, etc.). While these infrastructure improvements are necessary and important, they are not sufficient if the expectations for men are also not changed.

However, several articles about Japan’s “Womenomics” in recent months validate many of my observations about the gender divide in Japan and the crux of the social changes needed: the cultural expectation of working 12-15 hours a day, plus extensive after-hours socializing, essentially makes it prohibitive for two parents in the same household to work outside the home.

Women are going to save Japan…but only if men are willing to be part of the change too

As the Lean In movement has highlighted in the United States, a critical part of women’s ability to “lean in” to work, is men’s ability to “lean in” at home.

The author of “Women are Going to Save Japan” highlights this cultural change required to enable an increase in Japanese labor productivity:

Ironically, the health of Japan’s economy may depend not just on getting, and keeping, more women in the Japanese workforce, but on the Japanese workforce—as a whole—learning how to work a little bit less.

Another article titled “Abenomics needs to include Womenomics too” advocates for this need to make a broader social change if men and women are both going to “lean in”:

If Abe really wants to increase female economic participation, then his policies need to directly challenge an entrenched workplace culture. His ‘womenomics’ can only succeed if it creates a new working environment for both women and men and requires a renegotiation of work, lifecycle and gender norms for both sexes in the economy.

Will the focus shift?

I am interested to see if the framing of “womenomics” and the broader cultural expectations for the roles of men and women start to shift while we are living here in Japan.

If you have lived or worked in Japan, what is your experience?

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 127 Articles

Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.

  • Thank you for this piece, Katie! It’s a shame that women’s participation
    and leadership in work and society (in any country) so often gets relegated to being
    a “women’s issue” instead of everybody’s issue. It’s really about the
    health of our organizations.

    One of the things the lean community has been great at
    doing is simply asking why when it comes to problem solving and looking at the facts. Why is women’s
    leadership important? What is the real problem? IS there even a
    problem? What’s really going on with the gap? To this point, DDI
    did a study in 2014 showing that organizations that did better
    financially had more women in leadership positions. See page 46-47:

    It turns out diversity of leadership (which leads
    to “diversity of thought”) leads to better decision-making. I think of
    Malone and Wooley’s research out of MIT showing that gender diverse
    teams have higher collective intelligence:

    This is good information and still I think there’s a human resistance to making women’s leadership everybody’s issue. From what I can gather it’s because of our shared implicit bias towards women (we have lots of evidence showing this now, on the part of men and women both) and the idea that if we promote women we might stop a qualified man from getting promoted or we might promote the wrong person for the job, as Uschi Schreiber of Ernst & Young writes: http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2014/dec/22/uschi-schreiber-women-can-have-it-all-think-big

    I think solving the “women problem” in Japan or anywhere else, as it relates to economic health, means really questioning the idea that jobs and promotions and decisions come through “merit.” They do and they don’t. They also come through relationships and habits… For the most part, we hire and promote and fund people who look like us. This doesn’t make us bad people; it does, however, make our organizational practices biased towards women. This reminds of this article showing the pattern recognition that happens in the entrepreneurial space:

    I am curious about what will inspire men – in Japan or anywhere else – to take up this issue. Thank you for having the courage to raise an important question of benefit to all of us, not just women.

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  • Lex – Thank your for your thoughtful comments and for the links to the articles and resources. I really appreciate your thoughts on this topic. It is one that I am passionate about.

    It’s interesting, but of the women who do work, most are in administrative roles, even today. I recently heard of the term “Office Lady” – sort of derogatory slang for employed women, as traditionally (and not that long ago) women were just secretaries, greeters, or coffee-pourers. The concept of “pregnancy discrimination” is a hot topic – a friend’s friend, who has lived here for a decade, is being pressured by her employer to resign before she gives birth!

    I went to a “Women in Business” conference two weeks ago, hosted by the American Commerce in Japan. Prime Minister Abe spoke, as well as many prominent women and men (Japanese and foreigners) about Japan’s current cultural challenge about how to create an economy that supports both women AND med to be able to participate in work and at home. What was refreshing was that for the first time in my six months in Japan, I heard public discourse that included men (and cultural issues more broadly) as part of the solution (and problem). I will be writing about this in a blog post soon.

    I look forward to your comments and input as I explore gender issues in Japan – and more broadly.

    Thanks – Katie

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