Japan pledges US$50 million to World Bank initiative to finance female entrepreneurs

Ivanka Trump, daughter and assistant to US President Donald Trump, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend the World Assembly for Women (WAW!) in Tokyo on Nov 3, 2017.
Ivanka Trump, daughter and assistant to US President Donald Trump, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend the World Assembly for Women (WAW!) in Tokyo on Nov 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japan has pledged US$50 million (S$67.9 million) to a global initiative that promotes female entrepreneurship, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday (Nov 3) to an audience that includes Ms Ivanka Trump, senior advisor to US President Donald Trump.

This will make the country the largest financial contributor in the Women's Entrepreneur Finance Initiative, a public-private loan programme by the World Bank that was championed by Ms Trump and launched at this year's Group of 20 (G-20) summit.

The project, aimed at women in developing countries, had an initial funding of US$325 million including donations from Germany, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Abe and Ms Trump were speaking on Friday (Nov 3) morning at the fourth annual World Assembly for Women (WAW!) conference, which is Japan's flagship event to promote gender equality.

Ms Trump is in Japan ahead of her father, the US President, who will kick off his five-nation Asian tour in Tokyo on Sunday (Nov 5). Ms Trump returns to Washington on Saturday.

On Friday, she discussed the need to "adapt workplaces to the modern reality", calling for more flexibility to be delivered to more women in the workplace.

"We don't define 'men' as 'working men'", she said, calling for a departure from traditional and rigid business culture and societal norms.

"Even as the percentage of women in workplaces has increased, corporate expectations have remained stagnant," she told an audience of more than 200 delegates, calling for the need to reduce wage disparities by gender and to further flexi-work policies to ensure that women get the same opportunities as men.

This is especially so in traditionally male-dominated industries such as stem cell research and computer science, that are falling behind in gender equality.

"Otherwise we will risk reversing the hard-fought progress that we have made in this front," she said.

Meanwhile, Mr Abe discussed the leaps made by Japan in terms of women in the workplace ever since he took office in December 2012, saying: "I keenly believe that Japan has really changed."

Even so, his speech comes one day after the World Economic Forum released its annual Gender Equality league table on Thursday (Nov 2), in which Japan fell three spots to 114th place from last year's 111th, to rewrite an all-time low for the nation.

On Wednesday, he reappointed a 20-member Cabinet team that he put in place this August. Only two are women.

Even so, Mr Abe on Friday discussed how his trademark 'Abenomics' mix of economic policies, which also includes promoting female participation in the workplace, has succeeded.

There are now 1.5 million more female employees in the workplace than in 2012, as well as a five-per-cent increase in the number of women of child-rearing age in the workplace since he took office five years ago.

The number of female executives has doubled since five years ago.

He stressed: "A drastic change in our business environment has driven Japan's economic growth."

The Japanese leader said that he had worked in New York as a company employee more than 30 years ago, and at the time, he had been surprised by the level of active women participation in US offices.

"When I entered politics, I never thought I would see the day where the male-dominated Japan society would change to become like America's," he said.

"But as of last year, Japan's female employment rate has surpassed that of the US."

In 2000, Japan's prime-age female labour force participation rate (defined as the fraction of the population either working or searching for work) was just 66.5 per cent, below the OECD average and a full 10 percentage points below the US level.

Since that time, the US rate trended down to 74.3 per cent in 2016 while the Japanese rate has risen to 76.3 per cent, according to OECD statistics.

Still, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said that the percentage of female entrepreneurs in Japan is roughly 30 per cent. He noted such obstacles as the acquiring of professional knowledge on business and management, as well as to get access to loans.

"The situation for women in developing countries is much more severe," he said, adding that Japan wants to help "tear down these obstacles" with its contribution to the Women's Entrepreneur Finance Initiative.