Japan is not a country that has often been lauded for its gender rights records. Just nine years ago, the Japanese Minister of Health, Hakuo Yanagisawa, famously referred to women as “birth-giving machines” in a statement about the country’s shrinking population. Yet despite the prevalence of such harmful opinions about gender roles, Japan recently surpassed the United States in female workplace participation. Sixty-four percent of working-age Japanese women are employed compared to sixty-three percent of working-age American women.
Stagnation appears to be at the root of the United States’ problem. American employees receive no maternity benefits unless their companies provide them. Furthermore, women are far more likely to face pressure to scale back their workloads or even quit their jobs to take care of children. The lack of affordable childcare in recent years, coupled with the economic downturn, has caused many families to eschew much-needed income to ensure that their children are taken care of. Since these duties overwhelming fall onto the shoulders of mothers, these factors have combined to remove women from the American workforce. American policy has simply not kept up with the times.
Japan presents an interesting contrast. While the country’s attitudes toward gender roles are arguably more persistent and more conservative than America’s, Japan has had to face these issues head-on simply out of economic necessity. Japan faces a rapidly shrinking and aging population. The Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research states that by 2035 one-third of all Japanese will be 65 or older. The increase in elderly citizens causes a decrease in working-age citizens and economic productivity. However, according to Kathy Matsui, the first female Goldman Sachs partner in Japan, if Japan raises the percentage of working women to eighty percent, the country could expand its workforce by 8 million and increase its GDP by up to 14 percent.
Faced with these numbers, and with no solution to the population shrinkage in sight, Japan has started to take gender equality in the workplace a bit more seriously. In 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred directly to Matsui’s findings as he championed “Womenomics” as a potential solution to the economic growth problem caused by the stagnating birth-rate and population. Abe has aimed to institute policies that would raise the number of women who return to work after the birth of their first child to fifty-five percent by 2020. He pledged to create 400,000 new day-care centers by 2018. Japan also doubled the “child allowance” from 5,000 yen per month for the first and second child to 10,000 yen per month. And of course, as is the case in most developed countries, Japan’s women are entitled to paid maternity leave. Specifically, Japanese women get up to fifty-eight weeks of maternity leave, twenty-six of which must be paid.
Given the steady increase in labor force participation rates among Japanese women over the years, it would appear that at least some of these measures are having a positive effect. Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2010, the American women’s labor force participation rate dropped from 6th among the most advanced world economies to seventeenth.
While other advanced economies view female labor-force participation as an important means of economic growth, the United States has simply not prioritized it in recent years. This may well affect our ability to compete on a global stage.