Japan is notorious for lagging behind in terms of gender equality and improvements on this front are slow. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to tackle this with a new action plan on work reforms, details of which will be unveiled by March.
Noting that difficulty in continuing work after giving birth is a key obstacle hindering women's activities, Mr Abe said: "We will create an environment in which women can be fully active, pursuing their goals for both work and family without undue hardship."
He was speaking yesterday at the third annual World Assembly for Women conference in Tokyo, a two-day event organised by the Japanese government to promote discussions on women's issues.
Mr Abe promised to make things better for women by taking aim at Japan's long working hours and wage disparities between permanent employees and non-regular contract workers.
The event comes as Japan fell 10 notches to be ranked 111th out of 144 countries in the latest World Economic Forum global gender gap index released in October. Singapore was in 55th position.
While Mr Abe has tried to get more women into leadership roles through his "Womenomics" policy, this has not worked well. From a goal of filling 30 per cent of senior management positions with women by 2020, the targets have since been lowered to 7 per cent in the public service and 15 per cent in private firms.
Yesterday, Mr Abe noted that a majority of working women are non-regular employees in Japan, with their wages suppressed by as much as 40 per cent compared with their regularly employed colleagues. But he promised change. "We will make equal pay for equal work a reality," he said.
As for long working hours, measures are in store to set ceilings on allowable overtime work and revise tele-working rules, he said.
To help mothers return to the workforce, Mr Abe said his government is working towards having 500,000 more childcare centre places by March 2018. It will also roll out initiatives to help mothers upskill to help them rejoin the workforce. These include tuition grants of up to 70 per cent of course fees available for up to 10 years after mothers leave work.
Dr Machiko Osawa, who studies women's issues at Japan Women's University, told a recent media briefing that the current structure of the Japanese labour market poses obstacles for women at work.
"For women to be promoted to manager, they must demonstrate a 'samurai' work ethic of total devotion and sacrifice for the firm but household responsibilities make this very difficult," she said.
"And because women have a higher probability of quitting their jobs, they are not given the same opportunities as their male colleagues for promotion."
Japan's largest business lobby, Keidanren, is aware of these issues. Its chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara told the forum yesterday Japanese companies need to champion equal opportunities and embrace diversity so as to succeed.