Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Gender equality

One disturbing feature of Japanese society is the under-representation of women in the workplace. Although Japan has become a modern nation, the old social norm which stresses women should learn to self-cultivate the Confucian ideal of ryosai kenbo (good wife, wise mother) still has some validity.

Attitudes of male chauvinism still exist in some companies. Women employees are generally referred to as "office flowers" because of the emphasis many employers place on their physical appearance. As opposed to those duties designated for their male counterparts, "female" duties include copying, mailing, answering the phone, and serving tea.

The educated career woman does exist in Japan, but in lesser numbers than in other industrialized nations. There are some women executives in small businesses, but they are almost invisible in big corporations.

Pressured by the United Nations to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, Japan passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1985. Japanese women have made some gains in the workplace ever since, however, they still lag far behind men in terms of job retention and career advancement.

Mariko, an acquaintance in her early forties, joined a big financial corporation in 1992, after graduating from a national university with a master's degree in labor relations. She hoped the law would fully protect her from inequity, but she was very disappointed. Like many other Japanese women, her promising career ended in 1999, when she got married and had a child. She was passed over for promotion after she started leaving work before 5 p.m. to take care of her son. Then, she was pushed into a dead-end clerical job. She got frustrated and finally quit.

"Japanese customs make it almost impossible for women to have both a family and a career," said Mariko, "Most Japanese still believe the priority for married women should be the home and family. Even though I was working full time, my husband and mother-in-law expected me to do all the housework." Indeed, this traditional mindset results in an M-curve of women participation in the Japanese workforce. Most Japanese women experience their peak participation in the workforce as full-time workers before marriage and then as part-timers after their children enter junior high school. In effect, this phenomenon prevents women from attaining equal opportunity in the workplace.

Acknowledging that there are differences between women and men, they do not determine the superiority of one group over the other. However, these differences have been, in most societies, not just in Japan, excuses for placing women in an inferior position. It would seem that a woman's biological capacity to give birth has relegated her, until fairly recently, almost exclusively to the home. Only when gender equality becomes a goal in the minds of the majority of Japanese citizens will gender discrimination more swiftly meet its demise. Without a new perspective on old social norms, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law will remain powerless against ingrained stereotypes.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: July 9, 2010 (published in Japan Times ST)

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