Top Japan Female Lawmaker Urges Women to ‘Be Visible’

Japanese women in leadership positions need to do more to become role models for those trying to rise through the ranks if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign against gender inequality is to succeed, the country’s top female lawmaker said.

“The most important thing is to be visible,” Seiko Noda, chairperson of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council, said in a June 4 interview. “Show it’s not unusual to see women in the job. Appear on television. By having people see the LDP General Council chairperson is a woman it will help change thinking.”

Abe is aiming to make it easier for women to rise to the top, pledging a new law to provide incentives for companies and local and national governments to promote women to positions of leadership, according to a new growth plan released June 17. The implementation of the plan is not without challenges, including a lack of childcare facilities and tax rules that discourage women from full-time employment.

Lawmaker Taunted

Abe’s goal is to increase the number of women in managerial positions to 30 percent by 2020 to boost an economy faced with a shrinking population. Abe’s growth plan pledges to discuss ways to boost female leaders during this fiscal year.

Despite progress, Japanese women can still face harassment from their male colleagues. Ayaka Shiomura, 35, a member of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly, faced taunts from male lawmakers when she called for the local government to help women who are infertile or need assistance raising children, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported yesterday. One member shouted “you are the one who should get married as soon as possible.” Another chimed in with, “can’t you even bear a child,” the paper said.

Increasing the number of working women is an economic necessity as Japan’s working-age ranks are set to shrink by almost half to about 44 million people by 2060, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Japan’s gross domestic product could rise by as much as 13 percent by closing the gender employment gap, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s latest “Womenomics” report.

Never Marry

More than two decades after she entered parliament, 53-year-old Noda says the perception that Japanese women should remain in the home is still pervasive. When she became the only female member of Japan’s lower house 21 years ago a fellow lawmaker told her to commit her life to the country and never marry, have kids or grow her hair long. She broke all three taboos.

“Most people’s image of the General Council chairperson is an old man,” Noda, who has a three-year-old child, said. “There’s a tendency to think a child-raising woman can’t do the job. We can. About the only thing a woman can’t do now is be a sumo wrestler.”

Abe plans to add day-care centers for 400,000 more children by March 2018 and extend maternity leave to three years, to make conditions easier for working mothers.

Human Rights

“In the past, policies for women have been seen as human rights and social policies, but we have now enshrined them as part of our economic policy,” Gender Equality Minister Masako Mori said in a presentation at Bloomberg’s Tokyo offices on June 18.

While Japan’s female labor-force participation rate rose to a record 62.5 percent last year, it still trailed the 80.6 percent rate for men, according to the Goldman report. Women hold just 3 percent of civil service supervisory positions, and the lower houses suffered a 30 percent slide in the number of women lawmakers in that chamber, to 38 of 480 seats when Abe led the LDP into power in 2012.

Cabinet Changes

Abe will have a chance to increase the number of women in his cabinet later this year, as he is set to reshuffle his cabinet after August, according to Kyodo News. Currently women make up only two out of Abe’s cabinet of 19, including the prime minister.

Noda, who said she faced sexual harassment when she first became a politician, said while times have changed since her election to parliament in 1993, there is still a long way to go.

“At the time I couldn’t have long hair, dye it or wear accessories,” Noda said. “Nowadays women wear fashionable pink suits. That was unthinkable in my early days. However the number of women in the Diet hasn’t increased. It’s a serious problem.”

(Corrects date of heckling in seventh paragraph.)
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