TOKYO (AFP) - Japan must work to "eliminate misogyny" if it wants to draw more women into the workforce as part of a wider bid to stimulate the economy, said the head of the United Nations Development Programme.
Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark made the comments in an interview with AFP ahead of the release of the agency's 2014 Human Development Report in Tokyo on Thursday.
"Japan still has quite a low proportion of women in its parliament, amongst decision-makers, at the top corporate levels, so there are still some breakthroughs for the women of Japan to make," said Ms Clark, who is seen as a possible contender to succeed Mr Ban Ki Moon as the UN's secretary general.
Japan has one of the lowest rates of female workforce participation in the developed world and most economists agree it badly needs to boost the number of working women to grow its economy as the population rapidly ages.
But a lack of childcare facilities, poor career support and deeply entrenched sexism are blamed for keeping women at home, and for one of the lowest birthrates among the developed world as young women see having children as obstacles to their careers.
The issue was highlighted last month when a member of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party admitted he launched sexist taunts at a Tokyo assemblywoman during a council debate on motherhood.
The embarrassing episode came as Mr Abe has made boosting the number of women in the workforce a key part of his wider effort to revive an economy long plagued by deflation and tepid growth.
Ms Clark - who acknowledged sexism was still a problem for women in other advanced economies - said the Japanese premier was "covering the right territory", and added that he has come up with "quite practical proposals and investment in Japan to make a difference for women".
"If Japanese women can really work together to get more women through the political party system... (and there are) more people articulating perspectives about women's needs... then I think this kind of misogynist criticism you're seeing will start to recede," Ms Clark added.
That is "what our aspiration should be, because women shouldn't have to put up with the sort of abuse or catcalls... because they are women," she added.