Date
19 November 2017
Shinzo Abe is flanked by Yuko Obuchi, the newly appointed economy, trade and industry minister (left) and Sanae Takaichi, the new internal affairs and communications minister. Almost 30 percent of Abe's cabinet are women. Photo: Bloomberg
Shinzo Abe is flanked by Yuko Obuchi, the newly appointed economy, trade and industry minister (left) and Sanae Takaichi, the new internal affairs and communications minister. Almost 30 percent of Abe's cabinet are women. Photo: Bloomberg

Why sex-equality champion Abe needs a woman’s point of view

Yumi Suzuki manages a Japanese construction company.

That alone makes her a rarity in Japan’s notoriously patriarchal and hierarchical society, but that’s not why she has been getting a lot of attention lately.

Suzuki and women like her are lightning rods for commentary — good or bad — about a bold attempt by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to upend centuries of male domination in the workplace, starting with his own government and on down to different industries.

And as you might imagine, it’s a hard slog. The heavy lifting mainly involves overcoming both traditionalist resistance and pragmatism. It seems his country isn’t ready for anything as disruptive or ambitious.

Abe famously created Abenomics, an all-embracing concept of revival that deals with everything from the government to society and everything in-between.

Part of it is a goal to fill 30 percent of leadership positions in Japan with women by 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal.

On Friday, Abe was to host a forum called “Women’s Power as the Source of Growth.” Among the guests: Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Caroline Kennedy, Washington’s ambassador to Tokyo.

Only one in 10 managers in Japan are women, according to government data. That compares with three in 10 in Singapore, four in 10 in Germany and slightly more in the United States.

Abe appointed five women as ministers to his new cabinet last week, increasing the female representation to 26 percent from 10 percent.

He believes that the hard work of the women in the cabinet will bring about social change.

But business leaders and women themselves question Abe’s ambitious target.

With just six years to go, Abe’s goal is unattainable, they say.

Such obsessive focus on personnel statistics could divert attention from essential but time-consuming changes needed to keep women in the workplace.

“It’s about work-life balance, worker productivity, training female employees, diversifying work styles — issues that companies have been trying to address for about 20 years,” says Yoko Yajima, a diversity consultant at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting.

Japan Inc.’s notorious long work hours has been blamed for hurting its productivity and global competitiveness while shrinking the pool for potential female managers by forcing many to give up full-time employment after childbirth.

“The motive behind raising the number of women managers should be about easing access to opportunities and diversifying the way they work. Not sticking as many women as they can find into senior positions,” says Akiko Kojima, an analyst at Japan Research Institute who specializes in corporate gender issues.

Abe could use a woman’s point view but could Japan use a woman prime minister?

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