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6 Years After Japan Launched Its 'Womenomics' Policy Is It Working?

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 7:27 pm
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Six years ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a new policy called Womenomics. The goal was to help women get into the workforce. Since then, the share of women in their prime working years with a job has gone up from 73.6% to 77 1/2%. That's 2 million new women in the workforce. Cardiff Garcia and Pamela Boykoff from our podcast The Indicator From Planet Money took a look at the program to see how it got there, what worked and what didn't.

PAMELA BOYKOFF, BYLINE: 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.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: 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: 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. 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 daycare.

BOYKOFF: Japan's daycare 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 daycare. I met this woman, Ai Takano. She's 32. And she works in marketing at a manufacturing company. Takano went through this when she had to find somewhere for her son.

AI 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 the daycare or not. So I thought it was a very crazy system.

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

BOYKOFF: 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 daycares to open.

GARCIA: The government also, by the way, improved on its 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.

BOYKOFF: This brings us to the third and final factor which helped drive women into the workforce - economic anxiety. I spoke to this economist, Machiko Osawa, at Japan's Women's University. She sees this fear in her own students.

MACHIKO OSAWA: They realized the harsh economic reality. In the future, it is very difficult to have a one-earner household. So that contribution of the wife is crucial.

BOYKOFF: Japanese companies have a problem with entrenched gender bias. 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. 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.

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: Pamela Boykoff.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.