Reasons behind the lack of female participationJapan’s high gender disparity is particularly evident in governmental and economic areas. While efforts have been made to improve female representation, the ratio of women occupying decision-making positions continues to be low. The mechanism behind low female participation in politics and the private sector can be pinpointed to two main factors: part-time employment and generational conflict.
While the number of single women supporting themselves has risen over the past years, irregular employment is still more common among the female population. Deeply rooted traditional gender roles are behind the slow female advancement in the workplace. Gendered expectations position women as the main caretakers of their families, entailing unpaid work for household chores and childrearing. With long working hours and mandatory after-work engagements, business structures are often geared towards men. Most working mothers are left with no other choice than to opt for part-time employment due to conflicts between family schedules and work duties. As part-timers are less likely to receive promotions, many women struggle to climb up the career ladder. Instead, they are left behind on the sticky floor of low wages, poor job security, and limited growth opportunities.
Furthermore, conservative mindsets are kept alive by older generations of primarily male senior employees, typically holding leadership positions in Japan’s seniority-based and highly hierarchical corporate culture. When confronted with inadequate comments or behavior at the workplace, many shy away from speaking out, as open conflict is frowned upon. Yet, ignoring or even echoing outdated conceptions of a woman’s capability and social role is backing gender inequality. Thus, making it difficult for younger generations to perforate the country’s very visible glass ceiling.
Experiencing and tackling everyday sexismJapan’s ongoing struggle with openly voiced sexism was highlighted in February 2021 by discriminatory remarks of a high-ranked official responsible for the organization of the Tokyo Olympics. The incident was heavily criticized by international media, yet the ease with which misogynist beliefs were publicly communicated in the first place emphasized the deeply entrenched clichés still prevalent in contemporary Japanese society. Shortly after, Japan’s ruling party (LDP) made headlines by announcing that they were open to having women attend their all-male board meetings, yet female participants would not be allowed to speak.
While blatant sexism might be an exception, more subtle presumptions women encounter in everyday life truly impede the progress of gender equality in the country. For example, the very common, yet nonreflective use of patronizing language, such as adding the suffix -chan, a diminutive used for children, to the names of female colleagues, belittles women and their professionalism. Reproducing seemingly minor flaws in daily etiquette subliminally fosters an environment of ingrained, socially accepted discrimination towards women.
However, the public attention gender issues received recently put the spotlight on the underlying system hampering equality in Japan. Policies that meet the needs of women are slow to emerge. While past efforts simply aimed at increasing the overall number of women in the workforce, measures taking the burden off women’s shoulders, such as offering sufficient childcare for working mothers, are yet to be implemented. Allowing women a voice on a governmental and corporate level by actively involving them in the conceptualization of gender equality measures will most likely yield a higher success rate than exclusively men-made strategies for closing the gender gap.