Can Women Be a Catalyst for Japan's Renewal?

The country can no longer afford massive gender inequality if it wants to recover from the devastating earthquake

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Japan faces the daunting task of rebuilding after the earthquake and the tsunami. But these natural disasters struck a nation with deep structural issues, including a slow-growth economy, an aging population, often sclerotic political, bureaucratic, and business leadership -- and significant workplace discrimination against women.

Many commentators have speculated that Japan's response creates the possibility -- though hardly the certainty -- of broader renewal. Indeed, prior to the natural disasters, The Economist in a special report on the Japanese economy last November stated that "people almost seem to be yearning for a proper crisis to shake the country out of its stated lethargy, ingrained after 20 years of economic stagnation and almost 15 years of decline in the working age population."

Japan's unequal treatment of working women is no mystery:

    • Employment rates for Japanese men are 20 percent higher than for women, the greatest disparity in the industrialized world. On average, women only earn 60 to 70 percent of compensation paid to men.

    • A 2006 UN study found that Japan was last among industrialized nation in economic empowerment of women, with women holding only 10.7 percent of managerial positions in government and business (compared with 42 percent in the U.S.). The World Economic Forum's recent analysis of women's progress in politics, economics, education, and health showed that Japan ranked 101st out of 134 nations, down from 80th in 2006.

    • Japanese women are often put on an "administrative" job track, not a "career" job track by Japanese companies. And, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis, nearly 70 percent of Japanese women leave the work force after having their first child and don't return to work due, among other things, to absence of child care and inflexible work conditions (in contrast to the U.S. where only one-third don't return to work after having a child).

    • In Sony, 3.2 percent of the managers in Japan are women, with women constituting 32 percent of managers in the U.S. In the past year, Japan Airlines named its first woman flight captain in its air-freight subsidiary; American Airlines had its first woman pilot near a quarter of a century ago. Kirin Beer recently announced it was going to double its female managers by 2015 -- to six percent! The November Economist analysis reported that there are more women directors of companies in Kuwait than in Tokyo.

    • Japan again is last in the league rankings among industrialized nations for representation of women in the national legislature.

    • The rates of participation in the job market of Japanese college-educated women are 5 to 15 percent less than other developed nations. And, at the elite Tokyo University, women only make up 20 percent of the student body.

The impact of this differential treatment is a significant loss of economic growth, according to a 2010 economic study by Goldman Sachs ("Womenomics 3.0: The Time Is Now" [PDF]). If the gender employment gap could be closed (80 percent of men work; 60 percent of women), then more than 8 million additional people would participate in the economy (with attendant increases in production and consumption), which, the study argues, would increase Japan's GDP by 15 percent.

Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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