Gender is a significant element in many employment issues faced by adult women. These challenges raise common questions: why do women continue to earn less than men for the same jobs, will the glass ceiling ever be broken, can a harmonious work-life balance be achieved, and what steps should be taken to create a gender-neutral workplace? Similar problems persist for women in Japan. Japanese females encounter various work-related difficulties such as job segregation, unequal pay, sexual harassment, limited opportunities for career growth (including mentorship), biased performance evaluations, and insufficient chances for promotion.
One significant concern for women in the Japanese industrial relation system is the gender pay gap, which refers to the disparity in wages between men and women. It is evident within the Japanese labor market that men earn substantially higher incomes than women, leading to a growing wage gap. This occurrence can be explained by demand-side theories like...
labor market cleavage theory and labor waiting line theory.
The discrimination causing gender pay disparities is rooted in institutional structures such as educational systems, household arrangements, government policies, and labor management practices. These structures are perpetuated by the decisions and attitudes of various actors in the labor market, including employers, trade unions, and families. This discrimination prevents women from accessing equal job opportunities, training, and promotions, ultimately resulting in unequal pay. The Japanese industrial relations system also exhibits a division by gender, where certain occupations are predominantly reserved for men or women. Typically, wages in female-dominated occupations are lower compared to equivalent male-dominated occupations. Additionally, these female-oriented jobs often require a "serving mentality," wherein individuals provide services to others, particularly men.
Are the biased practices of government, big
enterprises, family traditions, and education organizations causing the gender pay gap in Japan? These features are promoted by household and schooling establishments. Prior to World War II, women had a significantly low status in Japanese society as they were not guaranteed gender equality under the Constitution. They were deprived of voting rights and eligibility for election. The Civil Code classified women as lacking sufficient skills for certain occupations.
The 1946 Constitution was a milestone in achieving gender equality post-World War II. It introduced important measures like the Fundamental Law of Education and the Labour Standards Law, which greatly improved women's legal rights across different domains. Japan experienced remarkable economic growth from 1960 onwards, leading to significant societal changes, including advancements in science and technology and better living conditions. These transformations, combined with longer life expectancy, lower birth rates, and higher educational standards, had a profound impact on family dynamics—especially for women. As a result, more and more women began participating in various economic and social activities.
Despite equal rights laws, achieving gender equality in Japanese society remains a distant goal due to the dominance of traditional beliefs. These beliefs dictate that women should stay home while men provide for their families, reflecting Japan's historical male-centered society where men worked their entire lives to support their families.
However, with Japan's economic growth, there has been a notable increase in employed women. Notably, female employment in primary industries like agriculture, forestry, and fisheries has decreased while there has been a rise in women working in service, retail, food industries, and manufacturing.
The participation of women in household businesses has declined while their employment outside of their households has increased. In 1998,
there were 21,240,000 female employees, accounting for 39.6% of all paid employees. The number of female employees aged 35 and older has significantly increased over time, representing 60.2% of total female employees. Consequently, the average age of female employees has gradually risen from 26.3 in 1960 to 37.3 in 1997.Married working women have also followed this trend and accounted for 56.9% of total female employees (excluding agriculture and forestry) in the year 1998.
66.5% (fig. 2) of women included in the statistics have experienced the loss or divorce of their husbands. Women are mainly employed in industries such as services, cleaning, retail trade, food and beverage establishments, and manufacturing. Furthermore, there has been a rise in the number of female students seeking higher education, resulting in a higher percentage of women graduating from universities and entering professional and technical fields. As a result, the progress in women's education along with technological advancements has expanded employment prospects for them.
The significance of adult women in Japan's economic and societal development is expected to grow over time, as their vocational life holds importance throughout their entire existence. Despite the increase in employed women in Japan, professional females still face discrimination and barriers to advancement known as the "glass ceiling" phenomenon. This phenomenon exists globally and is reinforced by stereotypical beliefs about women's leadership abilities and success in business organizations, as supported by various cross-cultural studies. Additionally, a majority of male managers in China believe that factors such as lack of dedication, inadequate experience, disinterest in management roles, and insufficient education limit women's progress in managerial positions.
According to surveys, male directors hold the belief that women lack leadership qualities or
possess inferior traits, leading to discomfort when working under female leaders. Nonetheless, Japan has taken steps towards reducing discrimination against women by enacting legislative measures such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
International agreements are highlighting the gender biases in Japan and urging the eradication of women's discrimination. The wage gap between men and women in Japan is influenced by various key factors, including the prevalent seniority-based pay system employed by Japanese companies, which creates disparities in pay based on gender. Moreover, many women exit their jobs due to marriage, childbirth, and childcare obligations, resulting in a shorter average employment duration compared to male workers.
The wage gap between men and women is influenced by multiple factors. Firstly, it significantly contributes to the creation of pay disparities. Secondly, women tend to work in industries or small-scale companies that offer lower wages. Thirdly, differences in academic background and a higher prevalence of part-time work among female workers contribute to variations in working hours. These factors are further magnified by the Japanese pay system, which often provides various allowances for dependents and housing. However, these additional benefits usually only apply to male heads of households. Consequently, women rarely benefit from these allowances.
The text highlights the gender pay gap issue. Women in their 20s earn around 90% of what men in the same age group earn, even when considering factors such as age, length of service, and academic background. However, this disparity worsens for women in their 50s who face a significant wage gap, earning approximately 70% of what men in the
same age group earn (Figure 3). Examining wage differences between part-time and full-time female workers is also crucial. The "Basic Statistical Survey of Wage Structures" reveals that part-time female workers have an average hourly wage of 893 hankerings, which represents a 2-hankering increase from 2002. Additionally, the index for the wage gap between part-time and full-time workers stands at 50.3 (Figure 4). These statistics emphasize that only a small number of Japanese women hold career-oriented positions and even fewer can successfully balance motherhood with their careers.
57% of employed women are married, and among all female parents, 65% opt to be stay-at-home homemakers. Married non-working women receive a tax deduction of $3,000; however, if their annual income surpasses $8,200, the deduction decreases to $240. Moreover, working women generally do not benefit from their partner's pension plan.
Japanese women often struggle with the difficult decision of achieving a balance between motherhood and employment. Upon marriage, numerous working women feel obligated to give up their careers. Those who opt to keep working are frequently encouraged to adhere to societal expectations and quit their jobs after becoming mothers. This predicament is one contributing factor to Japan's declining birth rate, as women hesitate to sacrifice their professional lives in order to start a family. Regrettably, pregnant women commonly encounter job loss once their pregnancy becomes known. The New York Times shared the story of a woman who informed her supervisor about her pregnancy and requested time off for a medical examination.
After being discharged from the infirmary, I was immediately fired from my job with a clear indication that they no longer required my presence. It is common for women who are
pursuing their professional careers to encounter difficulties when it comes to marriage and starting a family. Therefore, some women choose to have abortions in order to ensure their job security.
There are several common concerns among working adult females, including the lack of attention facilities, long working hours, and limited support for pregnancies and sick children. In some cases, women have even faced negative consequences such as being denied promotions or excluded from projects after taking time off to care for their ill child.
Many career mothers often rely on assistance from their parents or in-laws for tasks like caring for their children, picking them up from daycare centers, bathing them, and putting them to sleep.
This is because employers tend to show favoritism towards men who do not require leaves related to pregnancy or childcare and typically stay with companies for longer periods of time.
Employers are often hesitant to require married adult women to work long hours due to their family responsibilities. Women commonly face being the last ones hired and the first ones laid off during economic downturns because it is believed that men are the primary breadwinners. The demanding corporate work culture in Japan, which spans from morning till midnight, presents a significant challenge for women. The New York Times interviewed a woman who was overlooked for a promotion because she would leave work before 6:30 PM in order to pick up her daughter from daycare.
Despite being raised as the only child of a small auto part manufacturer's president and having strict rules imposed on her during childhood, including short hair and no dolls, she decided to quit her dead-end clerical job after being pushed
into it. Following the birth of her first son, her father forced her out of the company and appointed her infant grandson as his successor instead. However, after her father passed away, she took over the company and became the sole female head among the 160 companies that supply Nissan with car parts. Despite maintaining a busy schedule, she always ensured she was home by 7:00pm each night to put her son to bed before continuing work.
The OECD views the underemployment of educated women in Japan as a significant waste of valuable human resources. In 2005, Japanese women ranked among the most educated worldwide, with 42.5% possessing post-secondary education. Nonetheless, in terms of scholars in academia, women only make up 12.4%, compared to higher percentages in Russia (42.1%), United States (34.3%), and Italy (29.9%).
Japan is currently facing a decline in population and labor shortage, necessitating increased childbirth rates and female workforce participation. A female cabinet minister expressed concern that if women are required to work excessively long hours (15 hours per day), many would opt to leave their jobs. This labor scarcity in Japan is causing a noteworthy depletion of intellectual resources. In Japan, women commonly hold positions as "office ladies" (OLs).
Online (OL) occupations generally consist of low-paying clerical and service positions. These roles include tasks like managing entrances, serving tea and coffee, performing secretarial work, answering phones, and maintaining polite behavior. OLs are commonly referred to as the "flowers of the workplace." They often socialize in groups and wear matching uniforms consisting of skirts, white blouses, and waistcoats. Many of them leave their jobs after getting married.
Many females engage in monotonous jobs in factories
and fisheries, occupy subordinate positions in department stores or offices, or serve as nurses, home care aides, food service workers, or teachers. Classified ads often include listings specifically for "women only" in many of these professions. Rural women have historically been anticipated to work without complaint, fair pay, or inheritance. Currently, there exist few, though not many, female taxi drivers, truck drivers, and bus drivers.
Some adult females are obligated to prepare meals for their superiors, while others are required to speak in a high-pitched tone. Certain college-educated adult females with many years of experience in companies still find themselves in unfulfilling roles like answering phone calls and drafting memos for their bosses. Even women in management positions frequently face requests from male coworkers to serve them tea and operate elevator buttons. In Japan, numerous highly educated women still aspire to be flight attendants, often investing considerable funds in training courses. However, securing these jobs is challenging.
Some well-educated women work as Miss Fairladys - adult females who stand smiling next to new cars at auto shows. When women become physicians, bank directors, or soldiers, it is often considered a significant achievement. Women were not allowed to drive Shinkansen slug trains until 2003. There was even a female Japanese astronaut.
Many female employees are part-time workers who receive low wages. Even in relatively high-income families with working adult females, the women often have low-paying jobs. The majority of part-time or temporary workers are women. They often work as hard and put in long hours like full-time workers but receive less money and are denied benefits and opportunities for promotion. The colloquial term for a part-time job is a
"throw-away" because they are repeatedly hired and fired. Many women sign contracts that only allow them to work for three years.
Many women often fill in spreads for companies that save money by hiring part-time workers. These women often have no choice but to take these jobs because they still have household duties and regular workers are expected to work overtime without pay. The government has a tax system that encourages married women to earn less than $10,000 a year so they can receive a tax deduction from their husband's earnings. When we look at women's involvement in politics, we can see that the number of eligible female voters accounts for more than half of the total number of eligible voters, and the voting rate of women has been higher than that of men in recent years.
Currently, there is significant attention being given to the involvement of female voters in politics as it may have a significant impact on future political conditions. However, the number of women participating in decision-making bodies such as the National Diet and local assemblies (Fig.5) is still very small. Likewise, the number of women in managerial positions remains small, although it is growing annually (Fig. 6).
According to a study by the International Labor Organization, the percentage of women in managerial positions in Japan was only 10.1% in the mid-2000s, while it was 42.5% in the United States and ranged from 20% to 50% in other industrialized countries. Only South Korea and France had a lower percentage with 7%. Since 1985, when women held only 6.6% of all managerial jobs in Japan, there has not been much improvement. Japan has the lowest
level of women in executive positions among all developed countries.
Only 0.1% of board members in Japan's largest companies are women, with only five out of 300 surveyed companies having female board members. In 2004, only two women were on the boards of Japan's 37 Fortune Global 200 companies - specifically, Sony and Hitachi. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where all 78 of the listed companies had at least one female board member.
Nipponese women face difficulties in advancing their careers due to expectations that they participate in heavy drinking parties and have low golf skills. Promotions often depend on tests that only men are prepared for through special company-sponsored classes. Women who own their own businesses are not taken as seriously as men. According to one woman interviewed by the New York Times, when she gave a presentation, men would pretend to listen and then ask who her supervisor was once she finished. Eventually, she hired a man to accompany her during presentations, resulting in a significant increase in sales. Additionally, business meetings frequently extend beyond 6:00pm, when women are expected to be at home.
Home commitments also prevent women from participating in after-hours socialization, where many important decisions are made. For instance, at certain Japanese companies, female executives are excluded from important meetings and male employees are credited for work they didn't do. When these women complain, they are told: "you are forgetting your place as a Japanese woman." Consequently, many talented Japanese women have found better career opportunities abroad, particularly in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States.
Japan is well-known for its unique labor market, which is often referred to
as the 'internal labor market'. This market is characterized by long-term employment, where workers spend a significant part of their careers with a single company or industrial group. In Japan, there is a clear distinction between white-collar and blue-collar workers, with limited opportunities for blue-collar workers to move into white-collar positions during their careers. Additionally, skill levels and starting positions or tasks are not strictly determined by academic qualifications in Japan.
To illustrate, when starting their careers, university graduates, regardless of their acquired degrees, often begin at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy. Consequently, their initial salaries are low and comparable to those of entry-level blue-collar workers. Initially, all university graduates face similar job opportunities and must work as regular white-collar employees for at least ten years before advancing to managerial positions. In Japan, all employees, regardless of their job categories, are part of the same salary system and frequently covered by a corporate agreement that incorporates a single-status clause. These differences in hierarchical structure appear to significantly influence the formation of the gender pay gap in each country.
The lengthy journey to the residence of the Japanese director is unfavorable for women, as many young women quit their jobs after working for 10 to 20 years in order to get married and have children. The participation of Japanese women in the labor market is depicted as the "M-Curve" (Fig. 7). Consequently, many women's careers are limited to low-paying initial positions and they often miss out on opportunities for promotion to higher managerial roles. Additionally, the government does not provide enough support for Japanese women, despite options such as "parental leave" etc.
The availability of jobs
is increasing, and Japanese companies appear to be more open to hiring young workers, regardless of gender. This suggests that the gender pay gap might be less pronounced during this time in Japan. However, the employment market in Japan is not welcoming for middle-aged individuals. Generally, Japanese workers who leave their jobs in the middle of their careers have little opportunity to find another job in a similar field.
They are generally focused on the secondary labor market. Many Japanese women also return to the labor market after caring for their children, but they are forced to take temporary, flexible jobs in the secondary labor market, especially in the service industries. This implies that the significant gender pay gap in Japan is solely caused by institutional factors. As mentioned previously, the main reason can be attributed to the seniority-based wage system and gendered career paths, particularly the predominantly male tenure-track employment in both the public sector and large private sector companies. Approximately half of organizations with over 5,000 employees have a dual employment system. Employees in the tenure or "fast career" path ("sougou-shoku") receive training and promotions, while those in the slower "ordinary work" path ("ippan-shoku") do not expect to receive training or advance in their careers.
Despite the Japanese Equal Opportunity Law, which aims to discourage employment patterns that relegate women to slower career paths and men to faster ones, gender discrimination still exists in Japan. This law was enacted in 1985 and later amended in 1997. However, it does not require companies to eliminate gender wage disparities based on employee categorization. The tendency to assign women to slower career paths can be attributed to their
withdrawal from work after marriage and childbirth, as well as their re-entry into employment as part-time workers. This phenomenon is described by the M-Curve, which illustrates female labor engagement. Women's peak reproductive age coincides with the prime working age, during which men often pursue full-time careers and make decisions about career paths.
The pressure on employees to pursue a career can be demanding in terms of availability for work. Working long hours and showing commitment to work are necessary to enter the path of promotion, requirements that cannot be met by individuals with responsibilities for taking care of children and elderly people. However, in the 1990s, the seniority system began losing its importance, and a new pay system based on performance was introduced. This change is likely to have helped reduce the gender pay gap, as the seniority system favored men over women. The gender pay gap has been narrowing in Japan in recent decades, although the rate of progress seems slower compared to many other developed countries. Has the government played a role in reducing the pay gap? The Japanese government ratified the International Labor Organization Convention on Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Equal Value (#100) in 1967 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985.
Japan's decision to officially participate in the emerging global standards on gender equality may have been motivated, at least in part, by a desire to be recognized as a modern country, deserving of prestige and acceptance. The activism of Japanese women's rights groups might have also pressured the government into signing the agreement, as they aimed to push for
action by expanding gender equity norms. The Japanese government began reviewing its laws and regulations to align with the Convention, while also considering the influence of national customs and laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL), enacted in 1985, became effective the following year, meeting the deadline set by the United Nations. However, Japan's adherence to the agreement and the subsequent implementation of the EEOL did result in some unexpected changes within Japanese society.
One of the effects of the law was an increase in the number of adult females attending four-year colleges, as well as an increase in the hiring of female college graduates during the "bubble economy" of the late 1980s. The law has certainly helped in increasing the number of qualified women who are capable of fulfilling managerial and professional duties. While only a small number of women were able to access managerial or career paths (sogo shoku) that involve transfers, more responsibility, higher wages, promotion, and benefits, many large companies implemented a "two path system" after the law's enactment to essentially confine women to clerical tasks (ippan shoku) rather than managerial roles. However, due to the combination of increased education and aspirations resulting from the passage of the law, more women started applying for full-time employment.
However, the labor force participation of adult females in Japan is still characterized by an "M" shaped curve. After graduation from college or another school, women often leave the workforce after marriage and/or having children. Once they have left their lifetime employment under the senior status system, they are unable to return to their previous jobs or careers. According to 2006 data, 90.8% of retirement and dismissal
disputes under the EEOL were related to pregnancy and childbearing (Nakakubo, 2003). This highlights that the non-coercive weak law adopted largely left the male dominated, seniority-based system intact, perpetuating gender disparities. Ambitious women are forced to seek employment in foreign companies or outside of the Japanese corporate structure and its norms. As of 2004, women earned only 57.7% of what men earned and held only 9% of managerial positions (many of which may be merely nominal titles) (Sakai, 2003), indicating that equal pay for equal work, although accepted through agreement confirmation, is still far from being a reality. By 2008, this percentage had only increased to 10%.
According to the New York Times (7/17/08), the percentage of women in high directorial positions in 2004 was only 2.7% of bucho (Weathers, 2005). Recent data suggests that the gender pay gap is actually widening, reaching 32.9% in 2006 (Asahi Shinbun, May 12, 2008). Although a large percentage of women are employed, a disproportionately high percentage of them work part-time (90%), which may result in longer hours than regular employees (Ibid.; Washington Post, March 2, 2007). On average, women earn only 44% of what their male counterparts earn. Non-regular workers, who often have contract-based jobs known as paato, lack secure compensation and access to benefits.
The percentage of part-time workers has nearly doubled from 1994 to 2007 (now 34%). Increased attention to this data, as well as concern about the declining birth rate in Japan and the possibility of labor shortages, may have influenced the Japanese government to revise the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) through amendments effective April 1999. These amendments now require equal opportunity in recruitment, hiring, assignments,
training, and promotion (excluding job training). The 1997 amendments also introduced provisions regarding employers' responsibility to prevent sexual harassment and promote equal opportunity between men and women. The new amendments expanded the scope of the law from discrimination against women to include gender-based discrimination, therefore prohibiting discrimination against men as well. Furthermore, more detailed areas where discriminatory treatment is prohibited are now provided, including task assignments, delegation of authority, types of employment, change in employment status, and termination of labor contracts.
The EEOL also addressed a specific provision on sexual harassment, excluding "quid pro quo" and "hostile environment" patterns. Additionally, the concept of indirect discrimination was introduced as a form of prohibited prejudiced actions. Indirect discrimination means that any actions resulting in discriminatory effects for either men or women will be considered discrimination, regardless of explicit differentiation between the genders and other forms of direct discrimination. These actions are only permitted when there are legitimate reasons, such as those necessary for the performance of specific tasks. It has been noted that the two-track employment management system is in place.
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