A society in which ‘women can shine’: is Shinzo Abe’s ‘Womenomics’ a plan for genuine gender equality?

japan(Image source: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/08/02/cartoons/womenomics-shine/)

Acknowledging the potential of women has been consistently squandered within the Japanese private sphere. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Japanese Prime Minster, Shinzo Abe pledged his commitment to create a society in which ‘women can shine’. This pledge dubbed ‘women-omics’ is part of the larger LDP policy scheme for the economic revitalisation of Japan under ‘Abe-nomics’.

Empowering women in the private sphere

The Abe administration has outlined policies striving for progress in areas ranging from encouraging more women to enter the workforce, the introduction of gender targets for female appointments to senior positions in the private sector (with a target set for women to occupy 30% of corporate leadership positions by the year 2020) and encouraging men to take childcare leave.

As signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Japan has promised translate the norms and values of CEDAW, tackling the barriers to female engagement and equality in both public and private spheres[1].
Efforts at minimalizing the gender gap involve dealing with discrimination in political, social, economic and cultural spheres of society. The government has largely acknowledged the extent to which gender inequality permeates society. If you take even a quick glance at reports of gender equality reform is vitally needed as Japan significantly lags behind other economically developed nations in terms of gender equality.

A conflicting discourse

The ‘womenomics’ policy scheme, whilst progressive in nature by aiming for a more equal status of employment between men and women, does not place gender equality as the primary objective for success. The discourse has not been subtle in stating that a use of women’s empowerment is ‘indispensable to the recovery of a strong Japanese economy’. Gender equality and the advancement of women can therefore be interpreted as just a means to an end for the Abe administration, and a concern that is placed in a lower position within the hierarchy of social concerns.

Conflicting messages and policies coming from the Abe administration serve to undermine this commitment for ‘womenomics’ as a force for equality. At the same time Prime Minister Abe is advocating for more women to occupy senior corporate and governmental positions he’s also pledged to tackle the issue of Japan’s falling population figures by ‘boosting the low birth-rate’.

An apprehension in tackling the ‘dual career latter’

The government website celebrates that women holding management positions within the private sector ‘approaches 10%’ (emphasis on approaches there). This is a far cry from the aforementioned original ‘30%’ goal and this target has been readjusted to just 7%.

‘Womenomics’ does not address the detrimental role that unconscious biases play within Japanese society emphasising male-centric workplace attitudes and structures.
Typifying this is the ‘dual career ladder’ system that maintains its strength within modern Japan. New female staff are presented with two career paths upon applying for jobs, having the choice between a ‘non-career track’ and a ‘career track’. The choice sets a rigid career path on each track where there it either full or no chance for promotion. The career track system is highly weighted in favour of men who, in accordance with traditional family structures, will not have to take time off for childbirth of family care considerations.

Crucially Japan’s report to CEDAW acknowledges that the dual career ladder system has created a situation in which companies tend to have fewer main train career path females. Concluding that this system is ‘not problematic’ as long as an equality of opportunity is provided under the ‘Equal Employment Opportunity Act’. If economic revitalisation is prioritized and the government is unwilling to interfere with the affairs of business management in case of threatening any economic progress then this is another example of how ‘womenomics’ ultimately falls short as a programme for creating gender equality in the private sphere.

(Frustratingly slow) progress is progress nonetheless…

‘Womenomics’ contains severe deficiencies regarding its priorities, the practicality of achieving its aims, and absence of addressing serious issues which confront female empowerment, appearing hollow in its commitment to the empowerment of women and emphasising measures that would not be problematic for the economic status quo.
With this said, it cannot be denied that ‘womenomics’ is a step in the right direction. I am not excusing the fact that there remains a significant amount of work left to be done and I have chosen to only focused on ‘womenomics’ application to the business but many more serious issues exist due to problems in how it addresses expanding female political participation and it makes no reference to equality in the private sphere[2]. If Japan wishes to maintain its position as Asia’s leading liberal democracy and uphold the importance of rights central to such system[3], then the importance of the discussion of the role of women in society can no longer be marginalised, lest it allows the absence of equal female participation to undermine the project of democracy within the country.

References:

[1] Zwingel, Susanne. 2012. How do norms travel? theorizing international Women’s rights in transnational Perspective1. International Studies Quarterly 56 (1): 115-29.

[2] Eto, Mikiko. 2016. ‘ Gender’ problems in japanese politics: A dispute over a socio- cultural change towards increasing equality. 17 (3): 365-85.

[3] Steans, Jill. 2007. Debating women’s human rights as a ‘ universal’ feminist project: Defending women’s human rights as a political tool. Review of International Studies 33 (1): 11-27.

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About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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