Japanese Leaders Set Stage for Diversity

Japanese Leaders Set Stage for Diversity

Although the Japanese culture has traditionally been very defined in terms of gender roles, I’m convinced that there’s a huge opportunity for the business case for diversity to take hold because the country is so devoted to economic progress. In fact, recent societal changes are leading Japanese business and political leaders to realize the country’s lack of workforce diversity is a distinct disadvantage. As a result, the government has initiated a review of its decade-old equal opportunity law.

I was recently invited by the Japanese Ministry of Labour to participate as a business representative in an international panel entitled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling”, one of several the ministry is hosting to benchmark best practices around the world as part of the legislative review.

Over the past decade, Japanese culture has begun a transformation where individual goals are increasingly placed above those of the company, or, indeed, of the county. Women, for their part, are beginning to speak up for an equal role in the workplace, and are pushing the government to take on a more active role than the current law — which comprises mainly voluntary measures — allows.

For years, workers were told if they worked hard they would eventually reap the fruits of economic growth. Now, workers –especially women — are starting to ask when these benefits will arrive. They see the gains of their hard work going to a small male elite, while for the masses, housing remains expensive, and the cost of living is high. And the lifetime employment practices that were the most concrete benefit of the traditional system are eroding as a result of economic sluggishness.

Business, labour disagree

According to NIKKEIREN, the Japan Federation of Employers Associations, the main change needed is the elimination of restrictions on women working overtime and on late night work. Female non-union managers are able to work only 150 hours a year, while men in the same position face no prohibitions on overtime.

RENGO, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation , on the other hand, says policy changes should work towards eliminating wage differentials between women and men, improving working conditions (particularly for part-time workers), and improving the balance between work and family life through child care leaves and shorter working hours for both sexes.

Small business and government leaders ask why they should bother, but the business case for women in the workforce in Japan is growing stronger. Women represent 38.8% of the labour force, and their participation rates continue to increase. Female education has increased in recent years, and continues to rise.

Despite this better education, women remain unable to maximize their potential. According to a Japanese business professor I met, women often don’t get hired in suitable roles. He says companies can be hesitant to hire successful female graduates , partly because of the overtime restrictions, but also because of resistance to cultural change.

It is easy for us in North America to forget the threat that change of this magnitude presents. Young and old workers alike in Japan are having difficulty adjusting to women’s growing economic participation. A young man approached me during my trip, and asked, “If women can do all this, what is my role?”

Change is balance

The real challenge, as his question suggests, is to convince men of the benefits of taking a larger role in family life, and reducing working hours. If men, as the majority in the workforce, believe that this is a change in their favour, change is more likely to rapidly move forward than is it is seen as the concern of a female minority.

Experts suggest that labour tension will increase in Japan as workers demand more leisure and money and as women demand equal rights. I didn’t see anyone demanding anything while I was in Japan. The women we met worked very long hours, and few men spoke up for change, but I am certain change is coming.

The Japanese are taking notice of the Canadian experience, and clearly view us as global leaders. Looking at the experience of other countries is helping Japanese leaders better see the business case. I strongly feel that forums such as this one represent an opportunity to expand the debate to a global level.

Credit: Workplace Diversity - pg. 4.

Author: Maureen Geddes

Originally Published: October, 1996