Gender discrimination, as we define it legally in the UK, is alive and well in Japanese business practices. The breaking news of how Tokyo Medical University allegedly discriminated against female candidates by lowering their exam results may seem shocking to many western viewers (I can’t even put here some of the reactions I’ve seen through social media) but in reality, these ‘silent’ practices are still common occurrences in Japan given that the gendered roles of ‘male as breadwinner’ and female as ‘primary care-giver’ are deeply ingrained into Japanese society and were enshrined within the post-war HRM systems of larger corporations in Japan. Although many top-down attempts are being made to reverse this mindset, the under-current is still that women wanting families are obligated to take a different career path, as evidenced by the relatively low maternal work-force (unless in non-managerial work/part-time or flexible roles), low uptake of paternity leave (Japan has one of the most generous systems in the world) and worrying levels of maternity harassment institutionalised within workplaces. Within this context, the case of the Medical School is depressingly unsurprising as is the inability to challenge this mindset that exists even within women’s aspirations or enshrine the right of women to contribute to work and have children within recruitment processes. Instead, they allowed this cultural norm to justify discriminatory practises and continue the male-dominated status-quo-another reason why little progress is being made.
You don’t need to look any further than recent controversial statements by leading decision-makers in Japan (mostly older male politicians) regarding the ‘role of women in society’ to see the resistance to changes in gendered behaviour needed for Japan to enjoy gender equality amongst an increasingly complex environment in which the government’s womenomics initiatives have been introduced. No wonder they have not really met their targets of getting more women into managerial positions-indeed Japan has steadily dropped in the World Economic Forums’ Global Ratings on gender equality since Abe took power in 2012. The most common solution/excuse I hear is that it will take time, possibly a whole generation, for new expectations of gendered roles to emerge. However, Japan does not have that time. Given the current levels of increased international awareness due to the upcoming Olympics and Para-Olympics, similar stories will be uncovered and presented for the world to see. Economically, it will harm Japan too given their current demographic challenges and globalisation imperative, which both necessitate Japan to leverage their under-utilised female workforce and attract non Japanese workers, either domestically or abroad. This is bad PR for Japanese Companies wanting to be taken seriously as a progressive global employer.
Despite this being one of the major challenges to Japan’s growth (both demographically and economically), it is being increasingly left off the global agenda. As an example, a recent Bloomberg article advertising a new book by leading experts called ‘Reinventing Japan-New Directions in Global Leadership’ about how Japan can engage effectively with the rest of the world, made absolutely no mention of the gender issue and from a look through the contents section, neither does the book. Very worrying indeed. Gender must stay on the agenda for Japan.
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