Will first female Tokyo Governor boost women in workforce?

Will first female Tokyo Governor boost women in workforce?

Incoming Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has played a key role in Japan’s “womenomics” policies—how might her tenure over Japan’s largest city impact gender inequality?

The city of Tokyo has outsized influence. It boasts an annual budget that surpasses Sweden’s, and it produces one-fifth of Japan’s GDP. It is therefore not inconsequential that the world’s largest city by land area, population, and density just elected its first female governor—especially when she serves in a country with one of the world’s worst records for workforce gender equity.

Yuriko Koike won the gubernatorial race in Tokyo on July 31st, 2016. She succeeds two prior Tokyo governors, who each resigned in disgrace, and will lead preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympics. In doing so, Koike inherits a ballooning budget that shows little promise of improving the stagnation that has plagued Japan for the last decade.

The Olympics are not the only economic challenge Koike is now tasked with. Her role as Tokyo’s governor gives her power to address a hard but crucial problem: how to keep more women in Japan’s dwindling workforce.

Miss representation

A first glance at female participation in Japan’s workforce does not reveal the problem’s scope—participation jumped from 63.1 percent in 2009 to 66 percent in 2014. That means female workforce participation in Japan outnumbers the United States, where 64 percent of women work. This growth coincided with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s election to power in December 2012.

Once in office, Abe proposed quotas to include women in the workforce as an “arrow” of growth—one of several policies designed to bring Japan beyond economic standstill. Unfortunately, “Abenomics has shown thus far that gender quotas are not, in themselves, enough to revamp Japanese work culture.

Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Japan 155th out of 193 countries for female representation in parliament. As of last month, women held a paltry 9.5 percent of lower house seats—a one percent increase since Japanese women earned their right to vote in 1945. The Japanese workforce also has the biggest gap between male and female participation, with Japan’s male participation rate is among the world’s highest at nearly 85 percent.

Maternity harassment

One does not have to look far for clues about why this gap persists. Last year, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare conducted its first survey of attitudes towards Japanese women, who take time off from work to become parents. This survey of 3500 women aged 24 – 44 found that 48.7 percent of women who worked on short-term contracts endured maternity harassment at work. Nearly 22 percent of women employed full-time reported the same result.

“Harassment” within the scope of this survey included women being fired, accused of “causing trouble,” encouraged to quit their jobs, and receiving reduced bonuses. The number of maternity harassment complaints filed in Japan has risen 18 percent since 2009. This does not bode well for a country that has slipped into recession five times within the past seven years.

Japan’s gender quota

There is a silver lining in these dismal numbers: Koike’s political record offers hope that she might use her gubernatorial role to empower gender equity. She brings nearly a quarter century of political experience to her new role. That experience includes enacting legislation to advance female workforce participation.

While serving in Japan’s House of Representatives, Koike gave seven recommendations to Abe. Three were chosen as part of his goal to increase female workforce participation, including a quota to have women fill 30 percent of managerial roles by 2020. This was an initiative that Koike worked on before Abe re-assumed office.

“Actually, this policy was made in 2005, but although the policy was made, no one executed or implemented this policy,” Koike later said. “So the policy was put away inside a freezer, so to speak, and I was the one who took it out of the freezer to work on it.”

One could argue that this quota hardly denotes success—Abe’s policies are trending far short of his bullish goals. Still, the fact that change is slow to come does not mean that Koike’s efforts have failed.

The new stimulus package

On August 2—two days after Koike was elected—Abe approved a new stimulus package worth 28 trillion yen. That package reportedly includes funds to create more child care centres and entice companies to offer longer maternity leave. This is significant since lack of child care is cited as a barrier for working women.

Japanese women are guaranteed six weeks of maternity leave prior to giving birth, and up to eight weeks after giving birth at about two-thirds of their base salary. Japanese women are also legally protected from maternity harassment. Yet almost 70 percent of Japanese women reported not returning to work after having children. Lack of sanctions against employers coupled with poor child care options could be the culprit.

Koike’s role as Tokyo’s governor gives her influence to protect women’s legal rights. It also positions her to penalize employers that indulge maternity harassment while rewarding those that support working parents. Considering that half of Japan’s major companies are based in Tokyo, she has the power to make a big statement.

Koike has already played a quiet role in Japan’s work to improve workforce access for women. Her election to Tokyo’s governorship—coupled with Japan’s new stimulus package—offers fresh opportunities to support employers and parents alike.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Lauren Maffeo

Lauren Maffeo has reported on and worked within the global tech sector. In 2012, Lauren earned commission from the government of Taiwan to report on the island's media market -- the largest, freest market on the Asian continent. Lauren earned her MSc from The London School of Economics and her BA from The Catholic University of America, where she was a CUA Oxford Honors Scholar at St. Catherine's College, Oxford.