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COVID-19 presents crucial moment for gender diversity in Japan

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 In a world of uncertainty triggered by the global coronavirus pandemic, it is important now more than ever to not only maintain but to expand gender diversity in the business and political worlds, especially in Japan.

That was the main message that came across at the 25th International Conference for Women in Business, which took place on Sunday. The COVID-19 crisis forced organizers to move the conference online, with speakers from the United States, Japan and Europe taking part. The Japan Times served as a media partner for the event.

Worldwide, international firms have responded to the coronavirus in a number of ways, starting with ordering employees to work from home whenever possible.

Speaking from New York, Mitsuru Chino, managing executive officer at major trading firm Itochu Corp. and president of Itochu International Inc., said that this is leading to a paradigm shift in how companies think about the workplace.

“What is the best work style? In the past, working from home was not productive, and everyone felt that working in an office was the correct way to work. But we’ve all been forced to work from home now due to the coronavirus,” she said. “So now the emphasis is not on location but on obtaining the best individual work performance under COVID-19.”

For female employees and entrepreneurs, embracing this new work style of teleworking and making use of digital technology can be more difficult, said Wendy Teleki, head of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) Secretariat, which assists female entrepreneurs worldwide under the World Bank Group.

“Historically, in times of crisis like the one today, women entrepreneurs have fared worse than men,” she said. “In addition to the economic fallout for women, there are also child care challenges and educational challenges.”

These challenges are acutely felt in Japan, where the gender gap in business and politics remains large. Despite some progress over recent decades and more women entering the workforce, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2020 shows Japan ranked 121 out of 153 countries.

While more women have entered the workforce in recent years, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The majority of new jobs women have taken are as non-regular workers, including part-timers and temps, with little in the way of the kind of long-term security and benefits regular workers enjoy.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of having women occupy 30 percent of management positions by this year has failed. According to government data, just 14.8 percent of workers in managerial positions in Japan were women in 2019, lagging far behind Western countries like Sweden and the United States where the figure is about 40 percent.

“The gender balance is far from being reached. When it comes to the decision-making process, leadership positions in government and business are still very much male-dominated in Japan,” said Yumiko Murakami, head of the OECD Tokyo Center.

Makiko Eda, chief representative officer at the World Economic Forum, noted that many Japanese women, like women around the world, also discover that working at home actually creates more risks that have to be addressed.

“As schools close (due to the COVID-19 crisis), women have to do more unpaid work at home,” she said.

There has been much talk of the new working normal, and many corporate leaders are anxious to talk up teleworking as a golden opportunity for changing the way they and their employees work. But Asako Aoyama, chief financial officer responsible for NEC Corp.’s global business, warned that there was a downside as well as an upside to such thinking.

“The new-normal way of thinking has made people realize they can work from anywhere, anytime. That’s a huge benefit to working mothers who can’t stay in the office for long hours but are willing to make efforts to build their careers,” she said. “However, I can see diversity is at risk because COVID-19 also induces a crisis at many companies. During a crisis, firms need to make quick decisions, which could lead to a headwind against women, as people find it easier to make quick decisions among those with similar traits.”

If gender diversity in Japan’s business world remains lagging, the situation with high-level female politicians is also cause for concern. The Interparliamentary Union’s annual ranking showed that, as of Aug. 1, Japan ranked 167th out of 182 countries, with only 9.9 percent of the Lower House seats and 22.9 percent of the Upper House seats being held by women.

Some conference participants expressed disappointment over the fact that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed only two women to Cabinet minister posts — Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa and Tokyo Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto, whose portfolio also includes women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Liberal Democratic Party executive Seiko Noda acknowledged the disappointment but said that Suga made a good decision with his two female ministers, given the need to choose Cabinet ministers quickly.

“In the past, when other prime ministers have resigned before completing their terms, the succeeding prime minister has often kept the Cabinet intact.” she said. “Former Prime Minister Abe resigned suddenly, and not many people were prepared for it, so the assignment of Cabinet members also took place suddenly. But Kamikawa and Hashimoto were well-qualified for their positions.”

Nevertheless, Noda said, the LDP faces serious challenges in bringing in more women, especially at election time.

“For the next general election, politicians have to garner support from their constituencies. But when you look at Japan’s regional cities, they are still quite conservative. The traditional neighborhood associations are a strong source of support for politicians at election time. But in, I’d say, 90 percent of the time, those associations are led by men, normally retired men,” Noda said. “Those associations are where politics starts. We first need to replace those male neighborhood association leaders with more women, and put more women in the town councils.”

Increasing the number of female politicians in local assemblies, she added, is the best way to nurture future female political leaders who can then use their local experience and connections to move to the Diet.

So, while there have been many changes over the past quarter of a century that have helped improve the situation for women, there is still much work to be done in the corporate and political worlds to ensure true diversity, which, conference organizer Kaori Sasaki claimed, is the goal.

“Across Japan, there is much talk of a diversity agenda for men and women, as well as various genders and for those who are physically challenged, and for people of various nationalities,” she said. “This diversity of thoughts and viewpoints is exactly what we are aiming for.”

This article was first published in Japan Times

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