Channel NewsAsia

Japan’s Abe seeks to get more women in the workforce

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to reshuffle his cabinet for the first time in September, and he has said that he will try to keep women in the cabinet as he looks to set an example in his drive to boost female workforce participation.

TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to reshuffle his cabinet for the first time in September, and he has said that he will try to keep women in the cabinet as he looks to set an example in his drive to boost female workforce participation.

Masako Mori, Japan’s Minister of State for Gender Equality, is spearheading Mr Abe’s policy of gender equality and has been tasked with, among other things, getting more women back into the workforce. She is looking to lessen the burden on working women with children by increasing the number of childcare centres in the country, but she is also looking at creative ways to get husbands involved.

Ms Mori said: "I decided that those who take paternity leave will be promoted. My human resource chief said, 'Minister, please don't do this'. I said, 'Don't say it's unprecedented'. He said 'it's unprecedented in the world'. So it's the first in the world."

Her plan of guaranteeing promotions for fathers in her ministry who take paternity leave may be considered radical by some, but she hopes other organisations will follow suit. Such policies were borne out of Ms Mori's experiences early on in her career while she tried to juggle the demands of work with the needs of a young family.

"When I worked as an attorney, I didn't live with my parents, nor my husband's parents. We didn't have a babysitter. The nursery closed at 4pm. I picked my child up at 4pm, so while he played on the floor, I kept studying law. But after I had my second child, I had to give up my job as an attorney," she said.

Ms Mori's mindset about work and family changed when she went to the US and saw working parents attending school events. It was then that she realised she could work if her husband helped to look after their children.

But Ms Mori is a rare breed in Japan. She is only one of two women in the current 18-member Abe cabinet - in parliament, women make up only 10 per cent of lawmakers, which is one of the lowest rates among OECD nations. In the public service sector, only 3 per cent of the workforce are women.

The Abe government is trying to set an example by appointing four women to the highest ranks in ministries, but critics do not think revenue-seeking private companies will follow the government's lead. Instead, some experts suggest that the government should stop providing incentives to housewives.

Takao Komine, Professor at the Hosei Graduate School of Regional Policy Design, said: "Housewives can receive pensions for free. Companies provide extra funds, exempts taxes. So indirectly, the government is encouraging women to become housewives."

But doing away with such incentives will be unpopular, so the Abe government will need to think of other measures to encourage women to work.