Breaking the bias in Japan


Despite a high-profile push by her government to empower women, progress on gender equality in Japan has been painfully slow, writes Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi.

On December 16, 2021, the Office of Gender Equality of the Japanese Cabinet Office posted on its website, in Japanese, an interesting checklist to help raise awareness of unconscious gender biases, as well as a report by detailed research on the subject.

Why does Japan need it?

For a decade, the government of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe implemented a policy of promotion and advancement of women. “Womenomics” was one of the three arrows of Abe’s economic policy to revive the Japanese economy after the “lost decades”.

In 2014, at the Women in Business Summit, Abe said that “‘Abenomics’ will not succeed without ‘womenomics’.” Several policy changes were introduced, such as setting new targets for the involvement and advancement of women in the labor market, expanding childcare, encouraging Japanese companies to establish targets regarding the number of women they employ in leadership positions and the promotion of women in government.

Womenomics has made improvements in some key policy areas. Women’s participation in the labor force increased from about 60% to about 70%, and childcare services became more widely available. However, overall change has been frustratingly slow and two important indicators of a gender gap remain, namely a substantial income gap and low representation of women in leadership positions.

Despite an initial target of 30% female managers by 2020, the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau reported that at the end of July 2021, 732 companies, or 33.4% of the top-listed companies the Tokyo Stock Exchange, had no wives. directors or auditors.

The attempt to close the gender gap in politics has also been slow. The current cabinet has only 14% women, although this is slightly better than the previous cabinet. The gender pay gap in 2018 was 24.5%, the second highest among OECD countries. As a result, Japan fell in the global gender gap rankings and 2020 marked its worst performance ever. He ranked 121st, up from 94th in 2010.

So what is hindering Japan’s progress in closing the gender gap? Closing the gender gap cannot be achieved through policies alone, as these policies are always interpreted and applied through a lens affected by unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to learned assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes that exist in the mind without a person realizing it and that are formed through life experience.

Of course, everyone has prejudices, but some prejudices have a negative impact and limit the professional opportunities of certain groups. Japan is riddled with implicit gender biases.

A recent example was the comments of the head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee and former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, on the behavior of women in meetings.

“If we increase the number of women on the board, we have to make sure that their speaking time is somewhat restricted, they have a hard time finishing, which is annoying,” he said.

These comments were criticized and prompted his resignation from the committee in February 2021, although he initially refused to resign.

Mori’s comments reveal firstly his default belief that women should speak little in a meeting and even know “their place”, and secondly his preference for “well-behaved” female members of the committee, rather than bold female speakers. .

The higher education sector is not free from bias either. In 2018, supposedly at the height of the ‘womenomics’ push, Tokyo Medical University (TMU), a reputable private medical university, falsified female students’ exam results to ensure more men than women. Their reasoning would have been that female students might waste their investment in medical education, as they tend to leave their medical posts after graduation due to marriage or childbirth.

The broader field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics research also struggles with biases. Deputy Executive Director of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) and Director of JST’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, Miyako Watanabe, said in a 2019 interview that unconscious bias affecting female researchers are prevalent and that “many men believe that women will leave the workforce after having children.

Along the same lines, Masayo Takahashi, project manager of the Retinal Regeneration Laboratory at the RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research, explained that one of the reasons female researchers are so underrepresented in Japan is that girls in Japan “learn to be assistants, not bosses. This makes them reluctant to take on leadership positions. The government must do more to address this.

Unconscious bias holds Japanese women back in many areas, womenomics or not. The challenge facing Japan is whether it is willing to challenge its default assumptions, beliefs and attitudes and take action to break the negative cycle that holds women back.

Ultimately, the government must take responsibility for the disappointing performance of “womenomics” as a set of policies and do more to combat prejudice in Japanese workplaces and the wider community.

Jhe report of the Bureau for Gender Equality can be a step in the right direction. Used correctly, such information can help Japanese workers and employers control their biases, inspiring women and men to act against those biases for the good of the country.

More policies like this need to be underway, and policymakers must continue to build capacity to break down prejudice and unlock the potential of millions of women across Japan.


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