Commentary: Despite achieving economic success, Japan struggles with gender gap

TOKYO: The annual release of the World Economic Forums Global Gender Gap Report is always a moment of great shame for Asias many leading economies.

The relative gaps between Asian women and men on measures of health, education, economy, and politics are enormous, and are not improving sufficiently, as highlighted by the recently published 2020 edition of this report.



As usual, Nordic countries such Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden took the top places in the Global Gender Gap Index 2020 rankings, which surveys 153 countries. Also in the top 10 were Nicaragua, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, Rwanda and Germany.

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Australia and the US were among the laggards, ranking 44 and 53 respectively.



But Japan, the first mover in Asias postwar economic renaissance, is struggling in 121st place. This is way out of sync with Japans status as an advanced country with GDP per capita in the worlds top 30 countries. Korea is slightly ahead at 108th.

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When it comes to Asias emerging giants, the situation is similar. Indonesia ranks 85th, China 106th, and India 112th.

Without offering equal opportunity to half of Asias talent, the promise of an Asian Century will never be realised.


At the level of political messaging, however, Japan is a country that seems to be taking the issue seriously, as “womenomics” has been adopted as a key plank of the governments programme to revitalise the economy, Abenomics, named for the Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

FILE PHOTO: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a trilateral meeting in China's Sichuan province, December 24, 2019. Wang Zhao/Pool via REUTERS

And so it should. The performance of Japanese girls was equivalent to boys in a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that examined 15-year-old students knowledge in reading, mathematics and science.

Japan also needs to act because the countrys working-age population has been declining since 1998. Japan now faces labour shortages, with the size of the workforce projected to decline by a quarter by 2050.

In this context, immigration-shy Japan sees womenomics as an alternative to immigration. Abe once said, “Before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, elderly people, and we must raise our birth rate.”

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There are very many symptoms of Japans gender problem. It has the third-highest gender wage gap (the difference between male and female median wages) among the advanced OECD countries – only ahead of Estonia and South Korea.

Only 13 per cent of Japanese women hold management positions, the second-lowest of the OECD, after South Korea. In 2017, women occupied only 5 per cent of the seats on the boards of listed companies.

And women are also underrepresented in the political arena, accounting for only 10 per cent of the members of the lower house of the Diet (parliament).


As part of the Abenomics programme, government initiatives to facilitate womens participation in the economy include targets for participation and advancement of women in the workforce, increasing day care and after-school care, recruiting and promoting women in government, and reviewing the tax and social security system.

Since the launch of these initiatives, the Japanese economy has enjoyed faster growth. And this has helped push up the proportion of women with a job from 60.7 per cent in 2012 to 69.6 per cent in 2018.

But a large share of women remain in “non-regular jobs”, primarily part-time positions.

Japans womenomics initiative very much remains a work in progress. Japans gender gap is by far the largest among all advanced economies, and over the past year its ranking in the Global Gender Gap Index fell some 11 positions from 2018, driven by a widening of the political gender gap.

At this moment, there is only one woman in Abes 18-member cabinet. If Abe is serious about his womenomics initiative, at the very least, he needs to put more women into leadership positions.

Japanese women are highly educated in general but the country's notoriously long work hours force many out of the workplace when they start families AFP/KAZUHIRO NOGI

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