Japan's working mums harassed by colleagues over 'unfair' treatment

Pedestrians walk past a woman (left) wearing a maternity badge on a street in Tokyo.
Pedestrians walk past a woman (left) wearing a maternity badge on a street in Tokyo. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - Akane had always enjoyed her job at a Tokyo call centre until, unlike many Japanese mothers, she decided to return to work after finishing her maternity leave.

It was not long before colleagues started picking on the 30-something mother for working shorter hours or being away from the office due to child-care issues.

She is is not alone. Harassment of working mothers is a growing problem in Japan, possibly aggravated by government policies aimed at keeping women in the workforce, experts say.

Akane said her superiors were little help and the constant harassment - mostly from female colleagues - forced her to make a decision.

"I said 'I'm leaving, I can't stand it'," said Akane, who asked that her surname not be revealed.

"The surprising thing was that this was mostly the attitude of my female colleagues rather than the men."

To stem a shrinking labour force, rapidly ageing Japan is offering benefits for young mothers - such as flexible working hours, including no night shifts - to staff the nation's offices and factories.

But the moves have stirred jealousy and resentment in many workplaces.

"The situation is downright serious," said Maeko Takenobu, an author of several books about female employment who is seen as an expert on the subject.

"Many (women) suffer in silence as they have no other choice but work."

In response, Tokyo unveiled a public service campaign to stop the harassment of working mothers, including a hotline for whistleblowers, although many women are still afraid to report workplace abuse.

Nearly half - 48 per cent - of pregnant women say that have been the victim of bullying at work by colleagues or their immediate supervisor, according to a recent labour ministry investigation.

The same study found that one-third of working women have experienced sexual harassment at their place of employment, and a majority did not report the abuse.

And harassment is not just confined to the workplace.

A decade ago, Japan rolled out a small badge to be worn by pregnant women, which said "I have a baby inside me".

The button was designed to create a welcoming environment for pregnant women on subway trains and other public places as well as the office.

It was also meant for emergency first responders so they would avoid treatment potentially harmful to an unborn child.

The idea, however, has been a disappointment. Users are sometimes treated rudely on public transport, resulting in some women refusing to wear the badges for fear of becoming targets of harassment.

"Unfortunately, the badge is often seen as a sign of the vanity of being pregnant," said an editorial on akachan no heya, a widely followed website for pregnant women.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to pledge his support for working women as part of a wider bid to kickstart the country's struggling economy.

Economists have said for years that Japan needs to make better use of its well-educated but underemployed women, which could go a long way toward plugging the labour gap as it faces an ageing and declining population.

In speech after speech, Abe has urged Japan to open up to "womenomics", encouraging some of the nation's biggest firms to adopt targets for boosting the number of female executives.

While women are well represented in poorly-paid, part-time work, only a fraction of executives at 3,600 listed companies are female.

Japan was ranked 101 out of 145 in the Global Gender Gap Index 2015, released by World Economic Forum, lower than Suriname and Azerbaijan.

Last year, cosmetics giant Shiseido created a stir when it changed a programme that allowed young mothers working as its department store beauty consultants to work shorter hours and have more flexible schedules.

The programme, in place since 1991, annoyed other colleagues because working mothers were often absent during the busiest periods, such as evenings and weekends.

Shiseido said the move was aimed at giving working mums experience during hectic times so they could improve their skills - and be in line for promotions.

But some worry that may send the wrong message to young women considering having a child in a country where mothers already feel guilty for leaving their children with others - outside of nurseries, of which there is a huge shortage, and school.

Experts say Japanese society needs to look for more flexible solutions.

For example, the problem of waiting lists for children to enter nurseries will be hard to solve "until we enthusiastically introduce a system like the French 'nounous'", said Keio University's Takeshi Natsuno, referring to officially approved individual child care specialists.