How Japan Is Bringing Women Into The Workforce : The Indicator from Planet Money Women have long been an untapped economic resource in Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to change that. Six years after he launched "womenomics," is it working?

Japanese Womenomics

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Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. And I'm joined in the studio today by Pamela Boykoff. She's back from Japan. Pamela, hey.

PAMELA BOYKOFF, BYLINE: Hey, Cardiff, good to be back.

GARCIA: Awesome having you back, and you've brought us this story. And it is about how Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, came up with this big idea back in 2013 when he realized there was this resource - if that's the right word - that he could tap into to help Japan's sluggish economy start growing faster.

BOYKOFF: It wasn't, like, natural gas or AI technology. It was women.

GARCIA: Women as resources. Yes, it's a little uncomfortable to say that, but this is economics after all.

BOYKOFF: Yeah. And that's what Japan decided to do. Traditionally, a lot of Japanese women dropped out of the workforce when they had kids - so many, in fact, that a prominent economist back then estimated the country could add as much as 13 percent to its GDP if it could close the gender gap in employment.

GARCIA: Which, by the way, is, like, a huge gain. And all it had to do was to have as many women work as men are working, right?

BOYKOFF: Right. Sounds easy...


BOYKOFF: ...But we know not that easy.

GARCIA: Not that easy, but Shinzo Abe did make it an official policy to get more women into the Japanese workforce. And the idea he came up with even had a catchy nickname - womenomics. This is not just an issue for Japan, by the way. Countries like Norway and Sweden - they brag about how gender equality helped boost their GDP growth. And here in the U.S., economists say that we could be growing a lot faster if more women were employed.

BOYKOFF: On today's INDICATOR, we find out how, after six years, Japan is doing in its quest to get more women working.


GARCIA: OK. So it's been six years since Japan announced an official policy to get more women into the Japanese labor market. And if you look at the hard numbers, the policy does seem to be working. Since that policy was put in place, the share of women in their prime working years with some sort of job has gone up from 73.6% to 77 1/2%. That's pretty impressive.

BOYKOFF: Yeah. It works out to be about 2 million new women in the workforce, Cardiff. And Japan's women actually now work at higher rates than here in the United States. There's no single element driving this increase but a bunch of smaller factors mixed together.

GARCIA: Yeah, and we're going to talk about three of those factors. And those three are changing public attitudes, new government policies and economic anxiety. Let's take those in turn.

BOYKOFF: I'm going to start with public opinion. I met this woman, Ai Takano. She's 32, and she works in marketing at a manufacturing company.

AI TAKANO: I live with my husband and my 1-year-old son.

BOYKOFF: We met at 8 a.m. one morning at a Tokyo coffee shop. Ai told me she didn't feel any pressure to quit her job after she gave birth.

TAKANO: Personally, I like working. It's very hard for me to imagine myself being a stay-at-home mom because during my leave, which was around 10 months, I felt very stressful that I couldn't work, and I missed the connection with society.

BOYKOFF: Surveys show a declining percentage of people in Japan agree with traditional gender roles - this idea that men should go to work while women take care of the home and the family.

GARCIA: And having the prime minister of Japan come out and talk publicly about wanting more women in the workforce was a big deal because it encouraged people to talk about just why it's so hard for a lot of working women in Japan and what needs to change.

BOYKOFF: Japanese companies have a problem with entrenched gender bias. The work culture can be inherently discriminatory. You want to get promoted in Japan? Time served is the most important thing - hours and hours of overtime and years and years at one company.

GARCIA: This system is kind of stacked against working moms who lose out when they take maternity leave or if they have to leave the office at 5 or 6 to pick up kids from day care. They end up getting, so-called, mommy tracked - pushed off the ladder that leads towards raises and promotions.

BOYKOFF: I spoke to this economist, Machiko Osawa, at Japan's Women's University. She says the government is really pressuring big companies to cut working hours and offer more flexible schedules, which is great as long as it doesn't take women off the management track. She wants gender discrimination laws to be stronger to prohibit mandatory transfers or advancement linked to excessive overtime.

MACHIKO OSAWA: Those kind of indirect discrimination has to be banned and has not been done by the government yet.

BOYKOFF: The flip side of this - researchers say all that overtime also makes it harder for many men who are willing to help with child care or housework. The average man in Japan does about 45 minutes of housework and child care in a day. Women do about 3 1/2 hours.

GARCIA: I got to say that is an astonishing discrepancy. That is a tremendous unfairness.

BOYKOFF: For the record, Ai says she and her husband, they split stuff 50/50.

TAKANO: I'm pretty lucky to have a husband that leaves work early and then is happy about taking care of his child. And I think that's how I think every family should be. I think every family should have the right to spend their time with their family and children.

GARCIA: This brings us to the second factor that's contributed to more women working - policy changes. For example, one problem that's been standing in the way of more Japanese women working has been a shortage of day care. And even though Japan's population is shrinking, the demand for day care has actually exploded for two reasons. One - more and more women work outside the home. And, two, fewer couples live with their parents, so there are not as many grandparents around to look after the kids.

BOYKOFF: Japan's day care system is heavily regulated and subsidized by the government, and it just hasn't kept up. As of last October, more than 47,000 kids across the country were on the waiting list for day care. Parents joke it's as hard as getting into a top university. Ai Takano went through this when she had to find somewhere for her son.

TAKANO: It was desperate, and it was very frustrating because everything that related to my career or my life was depending on whether I can find day care or not, so I thought it was a very crazy system.

GARCIA: She got lucky, though. She snagged a spot at a new child care center in Tokyo.

BOYKOFF: And she's really happy with it. Now, the government is trying to tackle this problem, Cardiff. They're expanding the system and loosening some of the rules to make it easier for new day cares to open. It's still tough out there, though, for many parents.

GARCIA: The government also, by the way, improved on its already generous parental leave policy, and the government introduced a new law which required companies to publicly set targets for how many women they wanted on staff and in management. Though it's not yet clear exactly what kind of an effect those policy changes have had.

BOYKOFF: This brings us to the third and final factor, which helped drive women into the workforce. And I got to say, Cardiff, it's a bit of a downer compared to the first two.

GARCIA: Really? OK.

BOYKOFF: Many women in Japan now feel they have to work. Many families need more income, or they want a backup in case the husband gets laid off. It's economic anxiety. That economist, Machiko Osawa, said she sees this fear in her own students.

OSAWA: They realize the harsh economic reality in the future. It is very difficult to have a one-earner household, so the contribution of the wife is crucial.

GARCIA: You can almost hear it in her voice what you just said, Pamela, anxiety, stress.

BOYKOFF: Completely.

GARCIA: I got to say there is a problem with all these statistics. They all focus on how many women are working, but they don't focus on what kind of work those women are doing. Pamela, what do we know about that?

BOYKOFF: That's really where Japan's system starts to not look so good, especially compared to here. A lot of the work Japanese women are doing is low level or part time, like a college-educated woman picking up a few hours working at a shop or doing assistant work. Japan has one of the biggest gender pay gaps among developed countries.

GARCIA: And there still are very few women at the top of Japanese companies or on the boards of those companies. A Reuters survey recently found that women make up less than 10% of management at most Japanese companies.

BOYKOFF: Let's take the place where Ai Takano works. Right now, there are no female executives, and she's not sure there will be anytime soon.

TAKANO: I'm 32 right now. So by the time, for example, when I'm in my 40s and 50s, definitely I hope so, but I work in a manufacturing company, which is pretty male dominated. And I think if my company stays very traditional, as it is right now, I don't think we would see any.

GARCIA: So she's saying she doesn't think she would see any female managers, by the way. She's not even just talking about the chief executive. She just wants there to be a female manager at her company sometime within the next 10 or 20 years. It kind of shows how far there is to go, right?

BOYKOFF: It really does. So far, the womenomics policy has not succeeded in changing the culture that has prevented women from getting to the top. Many women in Japan feel this has to be the second phase of the policy - getting more women up the corporate ladder, more women into positions of political leadership, making it so women contribute not just economically but also equally.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Constanza Gallardo and edited by Paddy Hirsch. Fact-checking was by Willa Rubin, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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