The New York Times

July 25, 2003

Japan's Neglected Resource: Female Workers

By HOWARD W. FRENCH

TOKYO, July 24 When Yuko Suzuki went into business for herself after the advertising company she worked for went bankrupt, no amount of talk she had heard about the hardships facing professional women here prepared her for the humiliations ahead.

As an independent saleswoman, she found that customers merely pretended to listen to her. Time and again when she finished a presentation, men would ask who her boss was. Eventually she hired a man to go along with her, because merely having a man by her side even a virtual dummy increased her sales significantly, if not her morale.

"If I brought a man along, the customers would only establish eye contact with him, even though I was the representative of the company, and doing the talking," she said. "It was very uncomfortable."

Japan has tried all sorts of remedies to pull itself out of a 13-year economic slump, from huge public works projects to bailouts of failing companies. Many experts have concluded that the expanding the role of women in professional life could provide a far bigger stimulus than any scheme tried so far.

But it often seems that the Japanese would rather let their economy stagnate than send their women up the corporate ladder. Resistance to expanding women's professional roles remains high in a country where the economic status of women trails far behind that of women in other advanced economies.

"Japan is still a developing country in terms of gender equality," Mariko Bando, an aide to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, recently told reporters. This year the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 69th of 75 member nations in empowering its women.

While 40 percent of Japanese women work, a figure that reflects their rapid, recent entry into the job market, they hold only about 9 percent of managerial positions, compared with about 45 percent in the United States, according to the government and the International Labor Organization. Women's wages, meanwhile, are about 65 percent of those of their male counterparts, one of the largest gaps in the industrial world.

Japanese labor economists and others say it is no wonder, then, that Japan, which looked like a world beater 20 years ago, is struggling to compete economically today. With women sidelined from the career track, Japan is effectively fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

"Japan has gone as far as it can go with a social model that consists of men filling all of the economic, management and political roles," said Eiko Shinotsuka, assistant dean of Ochanomizu University and the first woman to serve on the board of the Bank of Japan.

"People have spoken of the dawn of a women's age here before," she said, "but that was always in relatively good times economically, and the country was able to avoid social change. We've never had such a long economic crisis as this one, though, and people are beginning to recognize that the place of women in our society is an important factor."

By tradition Japanese companies hire men almost exclusively to fill career positions, reserving shorter-term work, mostly clerical tasks and tea serving, for women, who are widely known in such jobs here as office ladies, or simply O.L.'s.

Ms. Suzuki, who went into business for herself, is the exception. These days Ms. Suzuki, an impeccably groomed 32-year-old who dresses in crisp suits and speaks at a rapid, confident clip, is the proud owner of her own company, a short-term office suite rental business in one of Tokyo's smartest quarters. "I am the only professional out of all of my girlhood friends," she said. "The rest are housewives or regular office ladies, and they all say that what has happened to me is unbelievable."

Whatever a woman's qualifications, breaking into the career track requires overcoming entrenched biases, not least the feeling among managers that childbearing is an insupportable disruption.

That is so even though the country faces a steep population decline and keeping women sidelined has had economic costs. Women's relative lack of economic participation may be shaving 0.6 percent off annual growth, a study presented to the Labor Ministry estimated last year.

Meanwhile, at companies where women make up 40 to 50 percent of the staff, average profits are double those where women account for 10 percent or less, the Economy Ministry reported last month.

A recent issue of Weekly Women magazine nonetheless recounted the stories of women who said they had been illegally dismissed because of pregnancy or had sought abortions for fear of being dismissed.

"I reported to my boss that I was pregnant and would like to take off for a medical check," Masumi Honda, a 33-year-old mother was quoted as saying. "When I came home from the hospital, I was shocked that he had just left a message saying that I needn't bother coming to work any more."

Other women say the intense competitive pressure in the workplace can lead to resentment, even in progressive companies, against mothers who avail themselves of child care leave or flexible work hours.

One woman, who abandoned a career in marketing after similar experiences in two companies, recounted taking leave for three days to look after a sick child.

"After that I was not included in new projects," said the woman, who spoke on condition that she not be identified, "and after that I felt they saw me as an unreliable person. I finally decided that if I work in a company, I must understand the company's spirit, which means I couldn't feel comfortable taking maternal benefits."

The growing sense of urgency in official circles about these issues is driven largely by the projections of a population decline that could cause huge labor shortages over the next half-century and possibly even economic collapse. So far, though, government efforts to expand women's place in the economy have been modest and halting.

An advisory panel appointed by Prime Minister Koizumi recommended recently that the public and private sectors aim to have at least 30 percent of managerial positions filled by women by 2020. These days there is growing talk of affirmative action in Japan.

But changing mind-sets will be difficult. Earlier this year, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, a member of a government commission charged with finding solutions to the population crisis, was widely quoted as saying the main reason for Japan's falling birthrate was the overeducation of its women.

Mr. Koizumi's top aide, Yasuo Fukuda, was recently quoted as saying that often women who are raped deserve it, while a legislator from the governing party said, approvingly, that the men who carried out such acts were virile and "good specimens." The latter comment came last month at a seminar about the falling birthrate.

While senior politicians bemoan overeducation as the cause of Japan's population problems, women unsurprisingly cite other reasons that make it difficult for them to have children and also play a bigger role in the country's economic life.

Foremost is the lack of day care, which for many forces stark choices between motherhood and career. There are also the working hours of many offices, which extend deep into the evening and sometimes all but require social drinking afterward.

Haruko Takachi, 37, a postal manager, is luckier than most. Her child was accepted into a 20-student nursery school opened last year by the Ministry of Education.

It is the only public nursery school available for the 38,000 government employees who work in Kasumigaseki, central Tokyo's administrative district. Unlike most private nurseries, which close earlier, the school remains open until 10 p.m.

"I work until 8 in the evening, but there are plenty of times when I work much later," she said. "That's just the social reality in Japan. There are some other women in my milieu, but most of them have just one child and don't plan for more."

Ms. Suzuki, who founded her own business, has been married for several years and has no children. She regards day care as just a small piece of what is needed in Japan. Men and women, she says, must rethink gender roles an idea that she hesitantly concludes makes her a feminist.

"Men are really intimidated by professional women in Japan," she said. "But this is still a society where even when it looks like a woman has some authority, the men usually manage to stay on top."


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