Japanese women stand low on corporate ladder 25 yrs after law change

Twenty five years have passed since the Equal Employment Opportunity Law for Men and Women was enacted to fight gender inequality at the workplace. By this time, people might think that a horde of college-educated women are calling the shots as corporate managers. But the latest Kyodo News survey shows that is hardly the case.

Of Japan’s 110 major corporations polled, 107 said it is important to use women’s talents, but women who are small section heads account for an average of a mere 5.4 percent of the total number of those holding that title. Of the total number of managers heading larger departments, women made up 2.5 percent. The figure goes down further to 1.7 percent for women corporate executives. In contrast, around 40 percent of corporate managers are women in other advanced countries, such as the United States and Germany.

The Japanese government has set a goal of boosting the percentage of women in managerial or other leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020, but Japanese companies appear to be less enthusiastic about the idea. Asked to give the percentages of women they want to see in managerial positions, the corporate respondents said an average of 18.6 percent for section chiefs, 15.4 percent for department heads and 14.4 percent for executives.

Still, out of this year’s new hires holding fast-track positions for managerial posts, an average of 27.7 percent were women.

Companies do want to employ more women because they are in desperate need of highly skilled workers because the country’s working population is shrinking. But the poll results suggest that there is still a widespread notion that business management is a man’s job. On the other hand, a significant number of firms want female workers to do more to improve the fortunes of employers.

Asked what they want out of female employees, 27 firms said they want women to reform their companies, and 22 said they hope to see female workers make more use of traits unique to women. Of the companies that find female employees somewhat wanting, 28 said women should acquire a broader perspective, 13 said women should be more flexible and 12 said they do not want them to quit early.

Commenting on the poll results, Professor Takashi Kashima, a gender studies expert at Jissen Women’s University, argues that there is a misconception among companies that women do not possess a broad perspective and are less flexible compared with their male colleagues. ”If they really want female workers to engineer reform, corporate managers should do more to give women their say,” he said.

Following the enforcement of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in April 1986, further legislative reform and in-house changes at companies have done a lot to put men and women on a more equal footing. Still, women remain quite disadvantaged when it comes to obtaining secure employment.

Nonregular workers, who enjoy little job security, have become a serious social issue and male temps sacked by manufacturers have drawn much public attention over the past several years. Government statistics show, however, that some 70 percent of nonregular workers are women and the percentage has remained more or less the same for more than 20 years. Asked why many of their female employees are nonregular workers, 72 firms said women have difficulty holding down jobs as regular staff for a long period of time because they need to raise children. A total of 59 said the odds are against women seeking regular employment if they have quit their jobs in the past.

Many corporate respondents also said it is quite rare for temporary workers, who work as office clerks, an occupation usually associated with women, to become regular employees. Those who have gained regular work status tend to be workers who possess specialized skills and have worked full time at given companies for several years.

The situation for working women appears to be improving as public concern has grown recently about the need to help women keep their jobs while starting a family. Against this backdrop, 75 percent of the corporate respondents said they are implementing some measures to help regular female workers with children. Also, 65 percent have instituted a system that grants nonregular female staff regular employee status.

The poll results amply demonstrate that corporate managers are aware that they are no longer in a position to rely solely on male employees, says Jissen Women’s University’s Kashima. ”The survey shows that a large proportion of companies deem it important to utilize the talents of women on the grounds of gender equality, and that says much about the growth over the past quarter of a century of public understanding about the ideals upheld by the Equal Employment Opportunity Law,” he said. Still, much has to be done to promote the career advancement of women and make it easier for them to stay in the workforce to utilize their potential, Kashima added.

The Kyodo poll was conducted on top managers or executives in charge of employment matters at 110 companies between late July and early August.