When it comes to the gender gap, Japan is in a highly unusual position. According to The Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks nearly at the top of the world in women’s education, health and survival. Yet, when it comes to economic participation and political empowerment, Japan is nearly at the bottom. In 2012, the Report ranked Japan at 101 out of 135 countries in the overall gender gap ranking.

The Japanese government has long portrayed the country as an ideal society in which men and women participate equally. Moreover, this “vision” gained legal stature when a law entitled Basic Act for Gender-Equal Society was implemented in 1999. As recently as 2012, Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, publicly committed to ensuring that by 2020 30% of leadership positions (in the public and private sectors) in Japan will be occupied by women.

So despite the government’s position, as well as the legal framework for the past decade, why does Japan not have robust female participation, especially in the private sector?

My personal view is that Japanese companies have not yet fully bought into the “business case” for why women’s participation is essential. After all, many of them have performed well in the past, even without a vibrant female workforce. In fact, as of 2012, Japan had more than 60 companies among the Fortune Global 500 companies, although I suspect that they are not necessarily at the forefront of gender parity in their workforces. This inevitably leads to a false sense of security that “business as usual” does not necessarily adversely affect the company’s bottom line.

Last year, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), stated that women could rescue Japan’s chronically underperforming economy if more of them went to work. According to the IMF, if over the next 20 years the proportion of women participating in Japan’s workforce increased from the current 62% to 80%, Japan’s GDP would increase by 0.5% over that period. Evidence such as this needs to be broadly disseminated and understood by business.

Gender parity does positively affect the economy. In order to stay competitive in the global age, it is long overdue for the Japanese private sector to look to, and include, Japan’s other half of the population.

Author: Mitsuru Claire Chino (YGL2005) is a graduate of Smith College and Cornell Law School.  As of April 1,she will be Executive Officer of Itochu Corporation.  (The first woman in this position in the history of any major Japanese trading company). 

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