• Companies of 300-plus employees must publish data from April 1
  • Abe wants women to bolster Japan's shrinking labor force

As an ambitious graduate from an elite university, Kyoko Fukushima was aiming for the top when she got a job at one of Japan’s big trading houses -- often working late into the night alongside her male colleagues. Ten years and two kids later, she found her responsibilities downgraded to paper shuffling, so she resigned.

Now there’s growing pressure on Japan’s corporations to stop pushing working mothers like her to the sidelines and instead help them develop their careers. A new law that comes into effect Friday will lay bare just how hard a task lies ahead. It requires large employers to publish statistics on their numbers of female employees and managers, along with plans for promoting them, complete with targets and time frames.

For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who’s faced with a shrinking labor force and is opposed to a large influx of immigrant workers, keeping women at work is an economic imperative. While the number of women in employment has risen since he took office, many hold part-time and contract positions. He’s set to announce a new package of family policies in May, but his previously announced target of having 30 percent of managers in all sectors be women by 2020 remains a long way off.

"I don’t know of a single company where women are able to perform on the same basis as men," said Kimie Iwata, who worked as a senior bureaucrat and as an executive at cosmetics company Shiseido Co. before taking up her current position heading the Japan Institute for Women’s Empowerment & Diversity Management. "I look at all sorts of companies, and I can say that with confidence about Japan."

Revised Downward

About 9.2 percent of managers in the private sector were women as of 2014, according to a December report by the government’s Gender Equality Bureau. In the U.S., women make up 25 percent of senior managers, according to a report last year by the Center for American Progress. Recognizing that reaching the 30 percent target by 2020 is unlikely, the Japanese government recently revised downward its goal to 15 percent for the private sector and 12 percent for the national government.

Iwata says companies need to drastically improve efficiency in order to help women balance work with family: hold shorter meetings, allow work from home and flexible hours, and rethink the system of the largest companies transferring employees around the country or overseas every few years, she said.

‘Shiseido Shock’

Encouraging women into leadership positions is proving difficult, even for companies seen as enlightened in terms of family policies. Shiseido, whose work force is 83 percent female, was showered with public criticism after changing direction in 2014 to have beauty consultants with small children work their share of late and weekend shifts. These are the busiest and most profitable times for the company’s makeup counters in stores.

A television program on the changes broadcast last year set off what became known as the "Shiseido shock," with many on social media criticizing what they saw as a backward step for working women and some even vowing to stop buying the company’s products.

The head of Shiseido’s human resources department, Yuki Honda, who made her own way up the ladder while raising two children, said women’s careers depend on their own ability to put in effort to meet the company’s needs. She added that the company’s shift in policy was to encourage female employees to seek promotion opportunities.

Being Away

"We had to tell them that being away from the sales floor at the busiest times would be negative for their careers," Honda said.

Shiseido is planning to increase the percentage of female managers to 30 percent this year from 27.2 percent last year, she said. 

By contrast, women at automaker Honda Motor Co. make up just 7 percent of the work force and 0.7 percent of management -- figures the company has said it struggles to increase, partly because of a shortage of women in science and engineering. It’s aiming to triple the number of female managers by 2020.

Mutsuko Kogo
Mutsuko Kogo
Photographer: Yuki Hagiwara/Bloomberg

"The women I speak to really value their careers and want to get ahead," said Mutsuko Kogo, general manager for diversity and inclusion at Honda. "But there is a tendency to try to lighten their burden out of kindness. It’s an unconscious bias."

Opting Out

While the government and corporations seek to encourage women in their careers, surveys indicate that many still hope to opt out of the labor force altogether. 

Almost 70 percent of working women who responded to a Sony Life Insurance Co. survey published in March said there were many obstacles to women’s careers, and 31 percent said they would rather be full-time housewives. That attitude may be most common among women who feel their jobs offer few opportunities for advancement.

Yoshie Saito, a 37-year-old hospital clerk having a drink recently in a singles bar in the Ginza area of Tokyo, said she didn’t want to work harder because she didn’t think it would bring her any financial benefit. 

"I want to get married soon," she said, citing unease about surviving on her low income as one of the reasons. "I’m not the career type."

Stop Dreaming

Former bureaucrat Iwata, also a mother of two, said aiming to rely on a man is unrealistic.

"Young women should stop dreaming," she said. "You can’t plan to be a full-time housewife these days. Now it’s only a tiny minority of people who marry someone rich enough to allow them to choose that path, and you don’t know when they might lose their job or fall ill. It’s too much of a risk."

Now out of the labor force for 10 years, 41-year-old Fukushima, who asked that her former employer not be identified, said she found her passion for work cooling after she had children. She expressed doubt as to whether the new law on the promotion of women will help working mothers, given other problems like Japan’s shortage of preschool care.

"Even if women decide to work, the fact is they have nowhere to leave their kids, so I am doubtful whether this law will truly be effective," she said. "I have many friends who are in trouble because they can’t find day care."

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