Building Back Better for Japan’s Women in a Post-COVID Society

The coronavirus pandemic has brought large interruptions to typical patterns of working, forcing Japanese companies to become more flexible and loosen their more rigid working styles. Yet, with the decimation of gains for women under Womenomics, these new adjustments actually present an important opening for key reforms of the Japanese labor market that could help weaken barriers that traditionally kept women from advancing in the workforce and into leadership roles. Rather than employing women as a means to save the Japanese economy – a common framing of previous Womenomics policies, the focus should be on building back better in ways that would actually be beneficial to women and working families. Policies such as telework, adopting a diversity lens in corporate practices, and changes to the social security system are not only smart adjustments considering the challenges presented by Covid-19 but also have the potential to further women’s empowerment and generate greater gains beyond those lost by the previous iteration of Womenomics. 

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced, by necessity, greater and sorely-needed flexibility into the Japanese labor market, which is a great benefit for women. A policy like telework has the potential to permanently loosen the rigid labor market practices that have systematically prevented women from rising in the labor force such as long hours in the office, compulsory relocations, and an imbalance in care duties. Indeed, telework has become more popular among Japanese workers. Although only 20 percent of workers are currently still working from home, a recent survey in June noted that 70 percent of workers supported continued telework options after the pandemic subsides. Many companies around the world, notably tech companies like Twitter, have indicated that they intend to keep a teleworking option permanent for their employees even after the pandemic ends.

Telework can permanently loosen the rigid labor market practices that have prevented women from rising in the labor force

If the Japanese government offered incentives for companies to continue to promote teleworking and flextime, both men and women would benefit from the greater flexibility. For men, it would mean fewer unnecessary late hours in the office—which numerous studies have shown does nothing to improve Japan’s labor productivity that is still the lowest among G7 nations. The recent shift to telework and the early closure of bars and restaurants also has potential to reduce the burdensome after-work nomikai (drinking parties) that perpetuate masculine styles of workplace relationships and would further reduce extracurricular workplace obligations, allowing more time for family.

For women, working from home has great implications in shifting the responsibility of unpaid housework. It would allow greater opportunities for both partners to share the burden of housework and child care rather than placing the burden primarily on women. The number of hours spent on housework and childcare among Japanese men has been the lowest among OECD nations. This is one of the key barriers for women to enter into more permanent employment and gain access to leadership positions with greater time commitments. A recent survey in June indicated that spouses were spending more time with families and learning how to share housework and childcare responsibilities. 

Telework could also alleviate the persistent scourge of the two-track system that was developed by Japanese companies after the passage of the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law. This law was designed to keep women out of the top management jobs by funneling them into a lower “regular” track with no chance for promotion. Remote work reduces the necessity of physical relocations that are often part of the requirements for management track positions which systematically disadvantage women who are more reticent to move if they want to raise a family. Companies like Fujitsu are embracing options that move away from regionally-based headquarters and towards options such as local co-working spaces and smaller satellite offices. This is not only allowing companies to reduce the operating costs of commuter reimbursements and renting expensive real estate in places like Tokyo and Osaka, but it is also allowing their employees greater flexibility in moving to locations further away from city centers with lower costs of living.

Remote work reduces the necessity of physical relocations which systematically disadvantage women

Yet, because measures such as these are unlikely to shift well-entrenched norms in the short-term, the pandemic could serve as a catalyst to address other essential structural and cultural changes in corporate practices. Kathy Matsui, vice chair and chief Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs, has been encouraging Japanese firms to more consciously nurture female talent, rather than continue with superficial targets that are never actually realized in practice. Longtime Japan resident, political scientist, and CEO of enjoi Diversity & Innovation, Jackie Steele, supports senior leaders in designing an evidence-based “diversity lens” into the heart of their business strategy so that “the diversity within all social groups is recognized as a driver of both inclusion and innovation” to address more pernicious issues like sexual harassment and the rigid hierarchical structures that prevent many women from seeking more regular and advanced employment opportunities.

Many of Japan’s women will be in an increasingly precarious situation when they attempt to re-enter the workforce once the economic situation improves. As the current numbers indicate, many women have lost or voluntarily quit their jobs while others may struggle with reduced hours and wages. Yet, we can see with the coronavirus crisis the pernicious effects on not just women but whole families who must make do with lost and lower income in times of economic downturn. Typically saving become a huge means of support during a downturn such as this, but with so many lost jobs, especially among women, it’s no surprise that many individuals and families found themselves without adequate savings and in need of cash assistance, with 98.6 percent of households accepting the one time 100,000 yen coronavirus emergency stimulus.

This overall lack of financial independence and stability for women is one result of Japan’s male breadwinner model. Japan’s tax and pension system penalizes dependent spouses (mostly women) who make over 1.5 million yen a year, incentivizing women to work less and earn smaller wages. It’s a policy that systemically lowers the ability for women to accrue wealth, increase savings, and gain financial independence and stability to support themselves or their families.

Japan’s tax and pension system penalizes dependent spouses incentivizing women to work less and earn smaller wages

Women’s organizations in Japan have long called for a switch to an individual-based system of tax and pension. Lifting the prohibitive ceiling on spousal wages would increase earnings and savings and strengthen the resiliency of families now and in the future to endure economic shocks. Revamping the system to progressively tax each individual for social security based on income (in addition to the other labor market reforms suggested) would allow more flexibility and opportunity for women to work, accrue wealth, and no longer treat women as economic “shock absorbers” while still expecting them to shoulder the burden of unpaid care work in the home as well.

The most recent changes to the pension system, while allowing more women and part-time workers to enroll in the pension system for corporate employees, is more the result of a need to increase contributions to the system to support Japan’s growing elderly population rather than a concern over women’s future social security. 

Economic downturns have a way of putting inequities into sharper relief – and the economic plight of Japan’s women is no exception. The current crisis presents an opportunity to create new norms and shift habits, especially within the labor force. With the onset of Covid-19 it became a necessity, but the new prime minister should see it as a welcome opportunity to institutionalize this new normal in ways that will be significantly more beneficial for the Japanese economy, women, and the cause of women’s empowerment.

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Kristin Wilson is a research intern with the East-West Center in Washington and cofounder and director of operations & financial affairs for WomEnpowered International (WE Int.), a membership association of young, diverse women and women-identifying individuals committed to empowering women and promoting gender equality in Japan and beyond. She recently attained her Master’s degree from the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo. Her research interests lie at the intersection of gender and diversity in politics, women, peace and security, and foreign policy.

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