By Makiko Eda

The Japanese government’s recent equality roadmap will encourage changes for women at boardroom level. This is good news for the gender gap, but there is still some way to go.

The Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, attracts significant attention each year. This year’s edition predicts that it will take 133 years to close the gender gap. The impact of the pandemic, in addition to the continuing challenges of gender parity in politics and economics, certainly did not help, adding 33.5 years to last year’s gap of 99.5 years.

The fact that the gender gap exists in all countries shows that it is a fixture built up by socioeconomic activities over the years, and that it is not something that can be eliminated naturally without taking action. In Japan, closing the gender gap continues to happen slower than in other developed countries, despite the fact that leaders are finally beginning to recognize that diversity is essential in building stronger organizations and a better society in the long term. In order to stimulate discussions on how to achieve this in Japan, here are my thoughts on political leadership as a crucial element in lifting the overall scope of diversity in the economy – such leadership is the driving force of society.

Equality from the top

In December 2020, the Japanese government established the broad direction of its policies and specific initiatives with the Fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality. Particular attention should be paid to the increase in women’s participation in the political and policy-making process and the promotion of positive action in the employment field. The plan calls for political parties to increase the percentage of female candidates. Though there is some disagreement as to whether such an initiative would contribute to increasing women’s participation in politics, there are some who argue that a quota system should urgently be introduced.

There are many barriers to women’s participation in the male-dominated field of politics. We need to re-think the way we run parliament, political campaigns and local petition activities, etc; we must make the process for these activities transparent. By not being able to see the process, the existing structure – “the way things have always been done” – is protected. As a result, women and people from minority backgrounds who have had difficulty entering politics in the past may be prevented from participating.

As citizens are empowered to shape politics though voting, changes can be brought about by each of us being conscious and taking action. What is alarming is that often women are not successful in gaining support from the existing political power base and as a result are discouraged from running for office. There is, therefore, an urgent need to make the selection process more transparent and create an environment where people with a wide range of experience can participate and push through changes. To create more opportunities for women to build experience in the political field, I would like to see further innovations in the way regional parliaments and elections are run, so not only Japan’s main political parties, but the grassroots, can promote the participation of a wide range of people, including women, in politics.

Equality from the boardroom

There is still a large gender gap in the economic field. Women are not sufficiently represented in top-level business decision-making, including executive and management positions.

The reality is that Japan still lags far behind the rest of the world. The Fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality states that consideration will be given to the improvement of corporate governance, including its disclosure to the Financial Services Agency, from a gender perspective.

The revision of the Corporate Governance Code, effective from June 2021, has been discussed to encourage companies to set targets in numbers for the appointment of women and foreigners to management positions, and to disclose progress towards that. At the same time, it is necessary not only to promote women in management and executive positions, but also to take measures to create a work-life balance so that employees at all levels can continue to improve their skills and careers, and related measures are gradually implemented.

When such efforts are made from a systemic standpoint, it is inevitable that data, along with key examples, will show how efforts to increase diversity, including the promotion of women to executive and management positions, lead to improved business performance. It is also crucial to think of women’s advancement as a means, not an end – a means of upgrading your business and promoting innovation.

Reducing the burden of unpaid work

In order to close the gender gap in politics and economics, one of the major prerequisites is to make the burden of unpaid work at home including childcare and nursing care, more equally shared between men and women. There is already much debate on how to change the way we work in business and politics, including men taking leave for childcare. We need to create an environment and culture where everyone feels psychologically safe in taking advantage of these systems. The way we think about work is changing, partly because of a new generation with different expectations. This will help create a flexible job market, rather than a rigid work style and career track. In light of this, it is also essential to change work styles and corporate culture.

In order to close the gender gap, strong determination and structural changes in society as a whole are critical. Because of the pandemic, women have suffered more economic damage than men. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 ranks Japan 120th out of 156 countries. What’s most important is that the determination to close the gap in Japan be shared by our leaders, who will follow through implementing real changes in the political and economic spheres. I hope that we see the day when those changes are reflected in the key studies like the Global Gender Gap Report.

About the author: Makiko Eda is Chief Representative Officer for Japan at World Economic Forum Tokyo