Japan's Sexism Makes for Terrible Economics: The Ticker

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By William Pesek

Of all the bad economic policies holding Japan back, ignoring women may be the worst.

The world's third-biggest economy hardly has a monopoly on sexism. Yet how often does the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development urge a developed nation to provide women more job opportunities to boost growth? The OECD consistently does just that with Japan as the country's population ages and growth wanes.

Shiseido Co., Japan's top cosmetics maker, could be getting the message.  Company vice president and long-time gender equality activist Kimie Iwata, 64, is championing an effort to tap Japan's underutilized female masses. "We want to develop their careers regardless of gender," Iwata told the Associated Press recently. "We want to have a lot of female managers and executives."

At Japan's top 500 companies, women account for less than 1 percent of executives, compared with 10 percent in America and the U.K., a survey in the Nikkei newspaper found. If the female employment rate matched the male rate -- one of the highest anywhere at about 80 percent -- gross domestic product would get a boost of as much as 15 percent, estimates Kathy Matsui, Tokyo-based strategist at Goldman Sachs.

Traditions are hard to break, and that's especially so of male-dominated corporate Japan. Yet if Japan isn't going to take other obvious steps to stabilize its shrinking workforce -- like liberalizing immigration -- it must act boldly to increase female participation in both business and politics.

The issue feeds directly into Japan's demographic challenges. Because it's difficult for women to balance a career with having a family, many end up putting off childbirth or having fewer kids. The end result is one of the lowest birthrates anywhere and one of the developed world's most unbalanced labor forces. With investments and tax initiatives to reduce the cost of daycare and childrearing, Japan could help reverse the trend.

More important still is fresh thinking on a problem that Tokyo isn't addressing. Shiseido's Iwata isn't just on to something that could boost her company's profits -- it's something that could save Japan.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Nov/22/2011 17:40 GMT