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COVID-19 shows why Japan cannot wait to act on gender equality

A hotel worker wears a protective mask and goggles at the reception desk of Mitsui Garden Hotel Nihonbashi Premier during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Tokyo, Japan June 26, 2020.

A hotel worker wears a protective mask and goggles at the reception desk of Mitsui Garden Hotel Nihonbashi Premier during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Tokyo, Japan June 26, 2020. Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

Makiko Eda
Consultant, World Economic Forum Tokyo
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This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • Globally, COVID-19 has affected women's economic opportunities more than men's.
  • In Japan, this difference is especially pronounced, with unemployment disproportionately affecting women.
  • Here are three ways to address this gender gap in the post-pandemic world.

In addition to reminding us that many women in Japan are stressed and vulnerable, the harsh economic reality of the COVID-19 era is that it has worsened the country's ongoing struggle for gender equality.

In Japan, which ranked 121st in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2020, rising 3% unemployment disproportionately affects women. With the current workforce 760,000 fewer than in 2019, 540,000, about 70%, are women.

Globally, COVID-19 has affected women more harshly than men. As IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva has said, COVID-19 has worsened "the tendency of women doing more unpaid household work than men." Even before COVID-19 women spent three hours and 28 minutes a day on average on household tasks, about five times more than men.

Women in Japan are less likely to be in the formal workforce, comprising only 44% of Japan's 67 million full time workers in 2018. While the formal workforce is more likely to be full time with benefits including paid leave and regular financial bonuses, nonformal workers have no such support. With many women forced to leave the workforce to have children without quality support from their employers, many women find that there are fewer professional opportunities available to them when they are ready to return to work.

Nearly 60% of women over 40 are employed in this unstable nonformal workforce. Women are also more likely to be in low-paying sectors, such as the service industry, in which 68% of workers were women in 2018. The pay gap between men and women is shocking. According to the National Tax Agency, men earned an average of 5.67 million yen ($54,000) last year, more than double the 2.8 million yen for women.

Despite these glaring differences, efforts to improve gender equality in the workforce have stalled. In a special address at the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2014, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated his intention to make Japan a place where women shine by ensuring that 30% of all senior leadership posts would be occupied by women by 2020. Months before his departure, the government pushed that back to 2030, and his successor Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has yet to address gender parity. Equal employment opportunity law for men and women in Japan was enacted more than 30 years ago, yet the progress has been excruciatingly slow. It is clear that time alone does not mean progress.

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With COVID-19 only worsening existing inequalities, Japan must implement the changes it has long been needed. Here are three ways to improve gender equality in the country.

Japan's child care leave system is substantive enough to be on par with comparative large economies, allowing all employees to take up to a year off with partial pay. In reality, men do not take advantage of this because of the widely held view in Japan that people who take extended leave are not professionally valued.

A recent survey by Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance showed that only 26% of men took more than one day of parental leave this year. While that is an increase of more than 10% from 2019, the average number of parental leave days taken last year rose from only four days to seven. The average number of days that women say they want their husbands to take is 94 days. That is a gap of about three months between the ideal and the reality.

The business sector can lead this movement by encouraging all employees to carry a fair share of the housework. One leading Japanese company not only requires its male employees to take extended paternity leave but also reviews how their wives rate them when it comes to doing the housework. When investors and consumers value these types of business initiatives, momentum will accelerate. At the same time, the public sector must continue to create the necessary framework and policies to support such a shift.

Evolving work environments to meet the needs of employees is nothing new, but the increase in the number of people working from home, as well as the extra burden of health care and child care, have accelerated the need for action. Companies must value the quality of work done, not the hours spent working.

Women in Japan have traditionally been pushed into supporting jobs like clerical and secretarial roles, which are more likely to be impacted by automation. Given this, women must have access to more education and reskilling opportunities.

Moving forward, Japan just does not have the luxury of carrying on with a "business as usual" mentality and expecting that the post-COVID era will be either healthy or sustainable. Gender parity must be a key part of Japan's Great Reset if we are to build a better, more sustainable society and ensure that future generations of women do not have to wait as long for equality as many of us have.

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