‘Womenomics’ a mixed bag 20 years after Matsui coined the term
by ISABEL REYNOLDS
Working women are playing a bigger role in Japan than Goldman Sachs Group Inc’s Kathy Matsui thought possible when she penned her first report on “Womenomics” in 1999. Yet, the country needs to pick up the pace of change or risk being overtaken by a demographic crisis.
Two decades ago, Matsui struck an optimistic note amid general gloom over Japan in her first analysis of women in the economy, setting out how empowered women could bolster flagging growth as the population aged.
In a new version out this mouth, Matsui, now chief Japan strategist, explains how Japanese women continue to trail their peers in other developed countries in many respects, even as they pour into the labour force in ever-increasing numbers. There are now three million more women working outside the home than in 2012, yet they earn on average only three quarters as much as men, partly because so many are in part-time roles.
“This country is already on the brink of a demographic crisis,” Matsui said in an interview in Tokyo on April 19. “If your sole key resource as a nation is your human capital, you don’t have a lot of options but to leverage every single human being.”
Matsui gives Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a patchy score card in her report — highlighting the slow progress on his pledge to increase women’s representation in leadership, and shortfalls on Abe’s targets for men taking paternity leave and mothers staying in work.
Japan, which is set to lose 40% of its working-age population by 2055, is already missing out on what could be a 15% boost to the economy if women worked to their full potential, according
to Matsui. That would entail not only raising the proportion of women in work to match that of men, but having each of them work longer hours.
Matsui noted that Japan’s labour participation rate for women has soared to 71% — higher than in the US and Europe, even amid blatant gender discrimination in fields from education to politics.
A Tokyo medical university made headlines last year when it admitted to excluding women in favour of less qualified men.
Earlier this month, one of the country’s best known feminists shocked attendees at the elite University of Tokyo’s entrance ceremony, with a blunt speech warning students of the prejudice women would encounter in school and after graduating.
Japanese receive some of the most generous parental leave allowances in the world, yet few men take advantage of them, and women face barriers to returning to work because of childcare shortages. Working mothers suffer because Japan’s fathers do less housework than their counterparts in other developed countries.
Abe, a conservative, jumped on the Womenomics bandwagon after he returned to office in 2012, becoming an unlikely champion of working women as he sought to tackle what he has called the “national crisis” of the ageing and shrinking population.
He pledged among other things to put women in 30% of management positions in all fields by 2020, though progress toward that goal has been glacial. In politics, only about 10% of lower house lawmakers are female, while Abe has just one woman in his 19-strong Cabinet.
“I’m advocating gender quotas in Parliament,” she said. “It’s just unacceptable to me that the most important laws and decisions affecting everyone living in Japan are determined by 90% of one gender.”
In 1999, Matsui’s report cited the growing number of women using cell phones, buying computers to access the Internet, snapping up luxury goods and even purchasing their own homes as trends on which to base investment decisions.
The 2019 Womenomics report proffers a different basket of companies that are positioned to benefit from women at work, including in fields like childcare, elderly care and temporary staffing.
Women Hope It’s Their Era
Matsui also offers a host of recommendations for Abe’s government, corporations and society as a whole — though some of her ideas have fallen on deaf ears for decades. She wants more to be done to break down the barriers between regular and non-regular workers, and an end to a tax system that pushes married women to be housewives. She also calls for looser immigration rules to allow more foreign caregivers.
But it’s not only Japan’s legal structure that needs to change, according to Matsui.
“The government can only do so much and a lot of the kind of heavier lifting needs to occur in the private sphere, not only within or inside corporations, but also within homes,” she said. Values, expectations and media stereotypes have an important role to play, Matsui added.
“Because Japan is so much at the forefront of ageing and shrinking population, all global eyes are on Japan,” Matsui said. “Is Japan going to be the template that other ageing societies will follow? Or will other nations say: ‘Don’t do what Japan did’!” — Bloomberg