Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Picture: REUTERS/RODRIGO REYES MARIN
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Picture: REUTERS/RODRIGO REYES MARIN

Tokyo — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will fall well short of his pledge for women to hold 30% of the nation’s leadership positions this year as the coronavirus pandemic highlights the fragility of women’s employment gains.

In April the number of women employed fell for the first time in more than eight years. That broke a streak of increases since Abe returned to office in December 2012, calling for better utilisation of the talents of the country’s female population.

After seven and half years of Abe’s tenure, Japan still languishes in 121st spot in the latest global gender gap report, below the United Arab Emirates and Sierra Leone.

While Abe had overseen an increase in female labour market participation above US levels, the pandemic has shown that when push comes to shove, women are still the first to lose out, accounting for 66% of recent job losses.

“Abenomics’ two greatest achievements were an expansion of tourism and an increase in working women,” said economist Mari Iwashita at Daiwa Securities. “But those gains of Abenomics have been lost in the coronavirus pandemic. The impact on women is particularly symbolic.”

Behind the collapse of jobs for women is the lack of security in the part-time or contract positions they typically land. These non-regular posts do not offer the same protection and benefits of regular jobs in which men outnumber women two to one. Nor are they the positions of power Abe promised to deliver by 2020, a goal that is likely to be postponed by up to a decade, according to local media reports.

Yasuko Kokubo, 49, is one of nearly 300,000 women who no longer have jobs as the coronavirus hit the economy.

Until May, she worked in Tokyo at a wholesale firm for hotel and amusement park souvenirs. With visitors disappearing amid the health crisis, demand dried up for items to mark happy outings. Kokubo lost a workplace that was supportive of both her and the childcare needs of her son.

“I want to go and look for a job again but if there’s a second wave of infections, it’s highly likely that schools will be shut again,” she said. “I’m sure this is the dilemma faced by all mothers bringing up kids.”

Higher burden

When the pandemic prompted the closure of schools, the impact on women was more significant than it was on men. While that mirrored developments in other nations across the globe, women in Japan were already carrying a higher burden than in other advanced economies.

Among couples with young children, wives spend six times the amount of hours on childcare and housework than their husbands. In the US, France and Germany the ratio is roughly double.

“A lot of women think first about their child’s circumstances, before their own jobs,” said Chihiro Unno, head of NPO Arrow Arrow, an organisation that helps women take maternity and childcare leave. “The longer they take a break from a job, the more likely it transforms into a long-term leave of absence, or the end of their employment.”

In the political sphere, the underrepresentation of women is even more stark.

Yuriko Koike is expected to win re-election as governor of Tokyo on Sunday in a race where she faces 21 challengers including anti-poverty campaigner Kenji Utsunomiya. While she has garnered praise for her faster response to the pandemic than the Abe administration, she is one of only two female leaders in Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Women’s representation in parliament, meanwhile, is one of the lowest in the world at 135th. Just 15% of Abe’s cabinet line-up are women.

Still, Abe lauded the progress made over the past seven years on Wednesday in comments to a government panel set up to empower women in society. Female representation on company boards has increased 3.4 times during that span and 3.3-million women have joined the labour force, though the need to accelerate progress was urgent, he said.

Quotas for women in public office would help, according to Kathy Matsui, vice-chair of Goldman Sachs Japan and coiner of the term Womenomics. She has long advocated a shake-up of Japanese society to better harness the female half of the nation and boost economic growth by as much as 15%.

To accelerate progress in the corporate world the government needs to tighten its rules on gender-related disclosure such as percentage of female board directors, she said.

Female representation on boards had increased to 6% in the latest available data from 2076 companies on the Topix index that disclosed the information, according to a Bloomberg calculation. Of those companies, only 22, or 1.1%, had reached the 30% threshold targeted this year.

“The problem with the current data disclosures is that a: it’s not mandatory, and b: it’s not standardised, meaning that companies can choose what type of data they disclose, which makes it difficult to compare one company with another,” Matsui said.

So instead of women starting career paths to the C-Suite when they poured into the labour market in recent years, they have mostly ended up with precarious positions outside the lifetime employment ecosystem that protects so many male jobs in Japan.

Labour market

Females make up 67% of non-regular workers such as part-timers and contractors. These jobs make up about two-fifths of the labour market, but lack the full range of benefits and security of regular positions.

Women also have a larger presence in service sector jobs such as retail, restaurants and tourism that have been hit the hardest worldwide by the virus. All of these sectors were forced to close or reduce hours during the nationwide state of emergency.

“The government needs to have a far greater sense of crisis over how women’s incomes and labour participation rates have dropped,” said Lully Miura, president of Tokyo-based political consulting firm Yamaneko Research Institute. “If incomes decline, of course the economic recovery is going to be much slower.”

Unno says policymakers need to support more jobs that can be done from home. That means a need for more digitalisation.

The pandemic may accelerate the trend towards working from home now that both companies and employees have seen it is possible in recent months.

Still, significant improvement in digital infrastructure and changes in Japan’s work culture are needed. While the government included the need for greater digitalisation in the outline of their annual policy package this month, the details are still vague.

Working from home may help women juggle their lives more easily but it does not change the lack of security of non-regular work as 37-year-old Miwako Tateno found out.

Earlier this year she thought she was on the brink of becoming a full-time employee at a small firm in Tokyo that designs websites and leaflets after joining part-time in October. But she was suddenly told her contract would not be renewed at the end of the month, due to a fall-off in events and activities needing promotion.

“I have no way of knowing for sure if it really was because of the coronavirus,” said Tateno. “But it really brought it home to me that when you’re a non-regular worker, the security of your job hangs on just one word from your boss.”

Bloomberg

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