'Unconscious bias' a reason for Japan's halting progress towards gender equality: expert

The women workforce participation rate has improved by 20 percentage points to more than 70 per cent, higher than the United States' 66 per cent, although most are in part-time jobs. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - When a Japanese manufacturer was setting up an office in Brazil, it had three people as its candidates for country chief: a highly-qualified woman who spoke Portuguese and had experience working overseas, and two lesser-qualified men.

But the woman was nearly ruled out because she was married with two children, a family situation her bosses assume would deter her from pursuing the position. She was eventually chosen after her colleagues intervened.

Goldman Sachs vice-chairman Kathy Matsui, who first coined the term "Womenomics" in a seminal analysis of Japan's women workforce two decades ago, recounted this recent anecdote at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting on Tuesday (May 21).

She noted that all too often, "unconscious biases" are holding back Japan in its halting pursuit of gender equality.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed in 2013 to "build a society where women can shine", but women continue to be held back from fulfilling their full potential as a majority are "irregular workers" with contract jobs. Women are also paid lesser than men across the board.

"If we can close this gender employment gap and the wage disparity, Japan's economy can be boosted by as much as 15 per cent, which is significant for a low-growth economy," Ms Matsui said.

But she struck a note of optimism.

While it is "very easy to get depressed on this topic especially in Japan where things move so slowly", she noted that younger job-seekers - men and women - are now asking questions about work-life balance in a sign of a generational shift in attitudes.

Already, some strides have been made since her first "Womenomics" report published in 1999. The women workforce participation rate has improved by 20 percentage points to more than 70 per cent, higher than the United States' 66 per cent, although most are in part-time jobs.

Japan Inc at large, too, is taking steps to boost diversity.

For instance, businesses are more transparent in disclosing gender-related data in their annual reports, she said. Many are also setting gender targets and action plans towards achieving those goals.

Still, Mr Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of the influential business lobby Keidanren, was put on the spot in another session when it was pointed out to him that all his 18 vice-chairmen are middle-aged men.

He said, laughing nervously: "This is a really serious issue. Keidanren is a clear representation of the Japanese business climate and so we need to change its atmosphere and culture, including the basic mechanisms of the Keidanren itself."

This work-in-progress will take years to bear fruit, he said, but added that he was confident women will soon be more active in Keidanren activities.

The conference also debated whether mandatory quotas should be enacted to ensure more women in leadership roles. Ms Matsui warned that this was a double-edged sword.

While they should be made mandatory when dealing with an intractable issue for which there has been much societal resistance, like in politics, these quotas ought to be done away with when society is more amenable to change, she said.

One area she suggested imposing quotas is in women representation in the Diet, Japan's Parliament.

Just 10.2 per cent of Japan's 463-seat Lower House is comprised of women - ranking it 164th out of 193 countries in women parliamentary representation by a survey in February.

This proportion puts it below such countries as Saudi Arabia (19.9 per cent), Libya (16 per cent) and North Korea (16.3 per cent).

Uber's chief diversity officer Bo Young Lee agreed that quotas may be controversial after the floor has been reached, as organisations may come to assume that they do not have to do anything any more.

She said she was neither for nor against the use of quotas, agreeing that they may be necessary to force change, but warning that they could breed questions on whether a woman's promotion is mere tokenism.

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