Getting Japanese Women Back on Track

This post was written with Laura Sherbin, a senior vice president and the director of research at the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Japan's economic health is threatened. Not just by an ongoing recession and March's disastrous earthquake and tsunami, but by an aging population that is decimating the workforce. If ever a country needed a breakthrough idea for productivity, it's now.

In fact, a solution exists: Japan's underutilized and under-leveraged women. According to a 2010 study by Goldman Sachs, "If Japan could close its gender employment gap...Japan's workforce could expand by 8.2 million and the level of Japan's GDP could increase by as much as 15 percent."

Yet according to "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Japan: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success," a new study from the Center for Work-Life Policy, 74% of college-educated women in Japan voluntarily quit their jobs for six months or more — more than twice the number of their counterparts in the U.S. (31%) and Germany (35%). The reason for this enormous brain drain: a toxic combination of deeply rooted social mores and how they're manifested in Japan's corporate culture.

Japanese tradition defines a woman's primary role as ryosaikenbo — "good wife, wise mother." Because it is assumed that most women will quit their jobs when they marry — a phenomenon known as a "happy resignation" — at many domestic firms, female college graduates are automatically shunted onto the "office lady" track, a dead-end support staff role whose duties include making tea for male managers, dusting their desks, and serving drinks at after-hours functions. Even though more highly qualified women have moved into "career track" positions in recent years, there's a huge earnings gap: On average, women only earn 72% of the compensation paid to men for equivalent jobs.

Not surprisingly, after a well-qualified woman has once again been passed over for a plum assignment, seen a less-qualified male colleague promoted too soon, or watched the credit for her work go to someone else, the decision to off-ramp to focus on family for a period of time becomes a no-brainer. Among the Japanese college-educated women in the CWLP survey, 63% say that they quit because their career was not satisfying and nearly half left because they felt stalled in their careers.

That's not to say that women who have spent years accumulating the skills, experience, and credentials are willing to let it all evaporate. Fully 77% of off-ramped women surveyed want to rejoin the workforce.

But their on-ramping efforts run into a wall: Only 43% succeed in landing a job, compared to 73% in the U.S. and 68% in Germany. Even those lucky enough to find a job face serious penalties in terms of earning power and progression. Nearly half face cuts in salary, and many others are forced to accept reduced management responsibilities and curtailed promotional prospects.

Those who do return find that ryosaikenbo and Japan's rigid work schedules don't mix. While the role of a "good wife" can share an uneasy coexistence with career demands, societal expectations of a "wise mother" — including preparing a visually appealing daily obento (box lunch), chaperoning school field trips, managing their child's after-school enrichment classes, and overseeing homework in a test-obsessed education system — amount to a full-time job.

Flextime and programmatic help would help ease the burden. Two-thirds of the women surveyed say they would not have quit their jobs if flexible work arrangements had been available. Yet flex work is difficult to nurture in Japan's morning-to-midnight corporate culture where nine out of ten respondents in a recent survey routinely put in overtime. While the power shortages in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami caused many companies to encourage employees to work from home, the overwhelming pressure to stay as late as one's peers means that "face time" will continue to trump flextime, and well-qualified Japanese women will pay the price.

"This is a case where change is driven by employers," says Gail Fierstein, Managing Director – Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs. In fact, some employers are seeing the issue and taking it on headfirst. In response to an employee survey revealing high demand for a childcare center for its Tokyo office, Goldman Sachs opened a facility offering full-time, part-time, and back-up programs for children of pre-elementary school age and after-school programs for children up to 12 years old. Since the facility opened in 2009, the average post-maternity leave time has decreased significantly; more than 80% of returning mothers using the center say it has enabled them to return to work earlier, which, in turn, decreases the amount of time necessary to get back up to speed and keeps them on their career track.

Similarly, Shiseido, the Japanese cosmetics giant, created the Kangaroo Staff Program, which provides part-time employees to relieve full-timers tripped up by childcare or eldercare. Its corporate daycare centers offer extended hours to accommodate overtime. Finally, a formal on-ramping program supports women and men who took parental or personal leave in their transition back to work. The program has helped over 500 female employees return to work.

Japan boasts a large pool of well-educated women, with women constituting nearly half of university graduates. Companies that make a special effort to recruit, retain, and accelerate qualified female talent will become magnets for top talent — and maybe even give Japan's ailing economy the boost it so desperately needs.

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