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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Women's Transformational Power

Sep. 7, 2015

The changing role of women in Japanese society plays an integral part of the nation’s future. But significant obstacles exist that make it particularly difficult for women in Japan to balance work and family.

Some of those challenges were on the agenda when Tokyo hosted the World Assembly for Women last month. About 150 women’s leaders from around 40 countries attended to discuss the way ahead.

Japan routinely lags behind on global measures of gender quality and women’s empowerment. Its ageing population and shrinking workforce have forced the government’s hand in trying to give women opportunities to play a bigger role in society.

According to the International Monetary Fund, utilizing women effectively in the Japanese workforce could help push up the nation’s per capita GDP by four percent. Currently, women hold just 11 percent of managerial positions in Japan, well behind levels in other industrialized countries.

As part of a bid to catch up, the Japanese Diet enacted new legislation last month that requires the state and local governments, and companies with more than 300 workers, to draw up numerical targets for the ratio of female managers. There is also an obligation to make those figures public.

The World Assembly for Women heard that women around the globe are struggling with similar issues. “Women have made significant progress in all areas and levels of society. However, it is equally clear that we are not there yet,” said Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Conference participants broke into groups to discuss themes that included ways to better manage a work-life balance. "Recent studies show that an average four out of ten full-time employees struggle to maintain a work-life balance,” said Australian delegate Michaelia Cash. “No one wants to lose their job, and so they work longer and longer hours,” she continued.

"We have huge child care challenges as well,” said American Melanne Verveer. “Because many of the structures that have been put in place were for another era, an era when women weren’t working outside the home. We are living with that structure today, and it doesn’t work,” said Ms Verveer, Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden attended the assembly, and joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to discuss some of the issues raised.

Beppu: There was the conference, and now we have a government policy. Does this mean we have a serious situation in terms of women's participation in society?

Doden: Yes, it’s serious. Motherhood prompts as many as 65 percent of women in career-track positions to quit work within 10 years of being hired. This means the pool of women with the prospect of reaching managerial positions is small to begin with.

Shibuya: What's holding back efforts to promote women?

Doden: There are two key hurdles. One is inadequate child care services. The other is lack of support from family members in raising children and in taking care of the family. Another major obstacle is the long working day and expectations at some companies. As much as 40 percent of the male workforce spends over 50 hours per week at work. It’s no wonder women have long found it impossible to juggle work and housework under these circumstances. There are two efforts underway in Japan that offer possible solutions for these challenges.

Taking Care of Sick Children

For many working parents, a sick child means a day at home, and a day of lost productivity. A non-profit group called Florence offers a solution by sending trained child care workers to homes.

Staff can be dispatched as long as a request is made by 8am. The service has attracted as many as 4,500 users in the three years since its launch. "Some people say mothers should stay with their children, at least when they're sick,” says Florence founder and president Hiroki Komazaki. “But I think society should offer mothers help when their children are sick,” he explains.

Florence staffers help women like Keiko Harada, who works at a business school and uses the service when her three-year-old daughter is unwell enough to stay home from nursery. Harada's parents live far away, and her husband is also busy working.

While she is at work, good care is taken of her daughter, including a home visit from a doctor. Florence’s service hours are from 8am until 6pm, allowing Harada to take charge of projects at work while raising her child. "I have things at work that I want to take care of and events I don't want to miss,” she explains.

Online Flexibility

An increasing number of women are taking advantage of the flexibility the Internet offers to join or maintain a presence in the workforce. “Thanks to the Internet, I can connect online and work together with people from around the world,” says one woman who does translation work up to eight hours a day from home.

“The Internet allows me to work flexibly,” she says of the contract work she obtains through the Crowd Works service that matches companies and workers. The woman says she now enjoys watching her daughter grow after abandoning her job at an IT office.

“Striking a balance between work and caring for my child, like what I should make her for supper, was always a big problem while I was working. I felt so angry because the company didn't realize the pressure I was under."

About 100,000 companies have signed up with Crowd Works, and 700,000 workers are registered with the service that has proved popular with parents.

"Our service offers opportunities to all kinds of people, including mothers raising their children and people with part-time jobs. It can provide a variety of options for people who want to work,” explains Crowd Works CEO Koichiro Yoshida.

Back in the studio, Doden discusses the services and support women need to get ahead.

Shibuya: How easy is it to access these services, so that women don't have to make sacrifices at home or work?

Doden: There's still a shortage of facilities. Prime Minister Abe pledged to allocate 500 billion yen to childcare for the next fiscal year, but studies show that there will still be a shortage of 50,000 places for infants under two years old. It's worth noting that entrepreneurs have seen this gap as a business opportunity to create an environment for women to stay in the labor force and start a family. After all, it shouldn't be an either/or issue to begin with.

Beppu: IT seems to be making a difference, because it brings in the issue of productivity.

Doden: Indeed. You don't have to look at how many hours you put in, you look at the outcome instead.

Beppu: We are talking about empowering women, but to me it seems like the bottom line is transforming society itself.

Doden: Yes, and it really isn't just about implementing policies and regulations only for women, but about creating an enabling environment where men and women can make the most of their potential. It means creating a society that embraces diversity. That can be a game-changer, because it requires our society to be more open to other ideas and beliefs, and be more receptive of different strengths and the limitations that we all have. Given the demography, it has to involve everyone, because increased female participation is no longer a matter of choice but a matter of time.