Asian Women Should Lean In -- Toward Norway

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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Head for the fjords, ladies! According to data on time use recently released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women in Norway had more leisure time than women in any other OECD country: 367 minutes a day. Probably doesn't hurt that Norway has a sovereign wealth fund of around $840 billion, the world's largest, underwriting a generous welfare state. Oh, and did I forget to mention that Norwegian men are also the survey's second-most-helpful around the house (after Danish men), logging 180 minutes per day of unpaid work (shopping, child and elder care, etc.)? Makes me want to go binge-watch "Vikings" ("he slices, dices, and chops -- and in the kitchen, too") to see how they do it.

Maybe South Korean and Japanese women should be lining up at the Norwegian embassy for visas. As the OECD data show, they have relatively low amounts of leisure time and do relatively high amounts of unpaid work. More tellingly, the ratios of female-to-male unpaid work in Japan and South Korea are the two highest in the OECD: South Korean women do five times as much as South Korean men, and Japanese women are nearly as burdened (4.8 times as much). No wonder that in Japan husbands are often derisively referred to by their household "partners" as sodai-gomi (oversized garbage) or nichiyobi no tomodachi (Sunday's friend).

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has trumpeted an expansion of the opportunities available to women as a pillar of his Abenomics. Yet his deeds, particularly his sexist appointments, belie that commitment. And although South Korea may have a female president who was leaning in long before Sheryl Sandberg cranked up her bromide dispenser, South Korean women face entrenched inequalities in the workplace.

Bold declarations and fiddles at the margins with government policy won't help. The stark inequities in the division of household labor point to the need for a deep cultural shift that requires sustained national leadership. As numerous studies have shown, greater professional opportunities for women would pay huge economic dividends in both countries. Japan and South Korea already have some of the lowest fertility rates in the OECD. The prospect of unequal drudgery is hardly an incentive to procreate -- a reality that leaders in both countries might want to ponder on International Women's Day tomorrow.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter@jamesgibney.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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