Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | East Asia

8 March 2022

Despite a well-publicised push from its government aimed at empowering women, Japan’s gender equality progress has been frustratingly slow, Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi writes.

On 16 December 2021, the Japanese Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau published on its website, in Japanese, an interesting checklist to help raise awareness of unconscious bias on gender, along with a detailed research report on the topic.

Why does Japan need this?

For a decade, government under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set a policy of promoting and advancing women. ‘Womenomics’ was one of the three arrows of Abe’s economic policies to boost the Japanese economy after the ‘lost decades’.

Back in 2014 at the Women in Business Summit, Abe stated that “‘Abenomics’ won’t succeed without ‘womenomics’.” Several policy changes were introduced, such as setting new goals for women’s involvement and advancement in the workforce, expanding childcare, encouraging Japanese companies to establish targets for how many women they employ in executive-level positions, and promoting women in government.

‘Womenomics’ did bring improvement in certain key policy areas. Women’s participation in the workforce increased from around 60 per cent to roughly 70 per cent, and childcare did become more widely available. However, the overall change has been frustratingly slow, and two significant indicators of a gender gap still remain, namely, a substantial gap in income and poor representation of women in executive positions.

Despite an initial target of 30 per cent of female executives by 2020, the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau reported that as of the end of July 2021, 732 enterprises, or 33.4 per cent of the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s top-listed companies, had no female directors or auditors.

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The attempt to close the gender gap in politics has also been sluggish. The current cabinet is only 14 per cent women, although this is marginally better than in the previous cabinet. The gender wage gap in 2018 was 24.5 per cent, the second-largest amongst OECD countries. Consequently, Japan has been slipping in the Global Gender Gap ranking, and 2020 marked its worst ever performance. It ranked 121st, down from 94th in 2010.

So, what is impeding Japan’s progress in closing the gender gap? Closing the gender gap cannot be achieved just by policies alone, as those policies are always interpreted and enforced through a lens affected by unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to the learned assumptions, beliefs and attitudes that exist in the mind without a person realising, and are formed through life experience.

Of course, everyone has biases, but some biases negatively impact and limit professional opportunities for certain groups. Japan is riddled with implicit bias when it comes to gender.

A recent example was comments by the chief of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee and former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, about how women behave in meetings.

“If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying,” he said.

These comments were criticised and caused his resignation from the committee in February 2021, though he initially refused to resign.

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Mori’s comments reveal first his default belief that women should talk little in a meeting and even know “their place”, and second his preference for ‘well-mannered’ female committee members, instead of bold speakers.

The tertiary education sector is not free from bias either. In 2018, supposedly the height of the ‘womenomics’ push, Tokyo Medical University (TMU), a reputed private medical university, tampered with female students’ exam scores to secure a higher intake of males than females. Their reasoning was reportedly that female students might waste their investment in medical education, as they tend to quit their medical posts after graduation due to marriage or childbirth.

The wider field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics research struggles with bias too. The deputy executive director of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), and director of JST’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, Miyako Watanabe, said in an interview in 2019 that unconscious biases affecting female researchers are widespread, and that “many men believe that women will leave the workforce after having children.”

In a similar vein, the project leader of the Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration at the RIKEN Centre for Biosystems Dynamics Research, Masayo Takahashi, argued that one reason why female researchers are so underrepresented in Japan is that girls in Japan are “taught to be assistants, not bosses. This makes them reluctant to take leadership positions.” The government must do more to rectify this.

Unconscious bias holds Japanese women back in many fields, ‘womenomics’ or not. The challenge Japan faces is whether it is prepared to question its default assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes, and act to break the negative cycle holding women back.

Ultimately, the government must take responsibility for the underwhelming performance of ‘womenomics’ as a set of policies and do more to combat bias in Japanese workplaces and the broader community.

The Gender Equality Bureau’s report may be a step in the right direction. Used correctly, information like this can help Japanese workers and employers check their biases, prompting women and men to act contrary to those biases for the betterment of the country.

More policy like this needs to be in the works, and policymakers must continue to build the capacity to break down bias and unlock the potential of millions of women across Japan.

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