Channel NewsAsia

Japan PM Abe's 'womenomics' faces many hurdles

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing a plan to promote the empowerment of women in the work force - he wants at least 30 per cent of managerial posts to be held by women by 2020. But it is an ambitious target.

TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing a plan to promote the empowerment of women in the work force - he wants at least 30 per cent of managerial posts to be held by women by 2020. But it is an ambitious target - Japan has an entrenched business culture dominated by men and is ranked 79th in the world when it comes to gender equality, according to the United Nations.

One woman who has made it to the top is Takako Suzuki, who became the CEO of consumer product company S.T. Corporation in April last year. S.T. Corporation is a listed company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange with 760 employees.

Her first job was at Nissan Motor Company, where she climbed the corporate ranks to eventually head the company her father founded in 1948. Her story is one of motivation and endurance, and is rare in Japanese business power circles. Ms Suzuki said: "I held a belief of what I wanted to do and to head towards that. It's the kind of passion I always had."

Shinzo Abe wants to significantly increase the number of empowered women in the workforce like Ms Suzuki. Of the 3,500 listed companies, Tokyo Shoko research said that just 28 are currently headed by women, which is below 1 per cent. As for women in executive and managerial posts, it is 7.5 per cent. Thus, the target of increasing that figure to 30 per cent by 2020 will not be easy.

Human resource development firm iQ has found the vast majority of companies do not intend to reach that benchmark. The setback - the fundamental lack of women in the workforce. One of the main causes of that is the number of women who quit their jobs after maternity leave. Nationwide, that figure is around 60 per cent.

Ms Suzuki added: "Women are very talented. They are talented but the support for them is lagging. They are unable to continue work at companies. I want to avoid such a situation from happening."

S.T. is looking to reverse that trend by encouraging mothers to return to their positions. Shoko Tanaka, the chief designer in the Marketing Division of S.T. Corporation, is one of them. She said: "My husband wanted me to continue to work. He's helping out where he can. My parents, they work, but they are helping me out when they could too. I myself grew up watching my parents work."

Her female co-workers said Ms Tanaka is a good example of a successful working mother, but many are hesitant to push for their own promotions. Nao Hayashi, a design staff in the Marketing Division of S.T. Corporation, said: "If you have kids, they get ill, there's school, you need to take them to childcare. All mothers are very busy, and to take on a managerial post is tough."

At S.T. Corporation, more than one in three employees are women. Still, only 7.4 per cent are managers. Support by their husbands is encouraged and fathers can take paternity leave.

Prime Minister Abe's policy of "womenomics" faces many more hurdles - principally reversing the social factors that discourage women from joining the workforce in the first place.