Gender Inequality

Japan's mental health crisis shows we need to fight harder for gender equality

Workers board a "women-only" passenger train during rush hour in Tokyo.

Workers board a "women-only" passenger train during rush hour in Tokyo. Image: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao

Nobuko Kobayashi
Asia-Pacific Strategy Execution Leader, EY
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Gender Inequality

• The pandemic has caused the Japanese suicide rate to rise faster for women than men.

• The economic crisis has fallen disproportionately on women, something compounded by the unpaid care they take on.

• The pandemic response worldwide must address the structural issues women face in a systemic way

Japan’s chronically high suicide rate means that the country promptly publishes monthly suicide figures. With the first year of the pandemic in our rear-view mirror, the data tells a disturbing picture.

A particularly striking feature is the female suicide rate, which rose more dramatically than the male one in the latter half of the year, resulting in a 15% higher total for women in 2020, compared to 2019, while the men’s rate remained flat.

Suicide is a deeply personal course of action, each profoundly different from one another. But there is little doubt that the pattern in 2020 is broadly linked to the pandemic. Japanese women’s rising suicide rate is the tip of a global iceberg; it has been widely chronicled how the pandemic has disproportionally impacted women’s well-being. As we mark International Women’s Day today and reflect on the theme “choose to challenge”, government and the private sector must urgently put a structural response to these unique pressures on women into action.

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While the health crisis of COVID-19 is almost gender-neutral, the economic crisis is not. The repeated lockdown in wide areas led to loss of jobs in the service sectors such as retail and hospitality; traditional sources of female employment. In Japan, female unemployment rose by 20 million women in December 2020 year-over-year. This represents a 34.5% increase, whereas male unemployment rose by 31.8%; lost ground on the positive increase of 3 million more working women during the economic boom years of “Abenomics” (2013 to 2019).

Economic hardship, however, is not the only factor to account for the gender-imbalanced nature of the pandemic’s impact. Even in normal times, women around the world spend more time in unpaid care and domestic work. Under the lockdown, this unequally carried burden grew worse. According to a Nissei Research Institute survey of double-income Japanese households, wives reported a 25-30% increase of time spent on chores at end June 2020 compared to January, as opposed to a 10-15% increase for husbands.

In summary, the pandemic underscores the structural issues that women face: both economic and the societal. We must address these challenges in a systemic way.

First, we need a ground-up campaign to fix the imbalance baked into everyday life – encourage men to pick up more cooking, cleaning and childcare. Iceland, No 1 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index for 11 years, concocted a radical solution half a century ago: a day in late October in 1975, declared by UN as a Women’s Year, is remembered as “the long Friday” when 90% of Icelandic women boycotted all paid and unpaid work. While boycott and demonstration may seem extreme, social networks today can be an equally powerful weapon. Leaders in politics and business can send the message to normalize gender-equal sharing of this invisible work.

Secondly, we must address a suite of “women’s issues” that the pandemic inadvertently shone light on. For instance, reports of domestic violence surged over the world in 2020. In the political environment dominated by men, such as in Japan, these issues are conveniently glossed over. But they are becoming more visible than ever. Installing safe and free access to help, both online and offline, is critical.

Finally, the pandemic offers an opportunity to reset the nature of women’s employment; the solutions must align with the future of work. Post-COVID, the labour market will accelerate the irreversible change – technology nudging us to a contactless society, with reduced demand for the service industry. Automation will wipe out much clerical work. Women, typically filling these positions as the economy ebbs and flows, will continue to suffer without an intervention.

We must therefore invest in reskilling them, to pivot them to newer demand. The new sources of employment do not mean everyone has to work as data analysts at tech companies. The upside of the sudden digitization is that micro-entrepreneurship run from a home office suddenly looks like a feasible possibility. Support from public and private organizations can include introduction to new work styles, financing and mentoring specifically tailored to the displaced women.

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Depression, the slope to suicide, is linked to the loss of a sense of purpose in life. In that regard, government hand-outs, if a temporary solution, are powerless. The growing disaffection of women because of the pandemic is a wake-up call for us to address the structural issues they face. Let the pandemic be a catalyst for change.

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Related topics:
Gender InequalityFuture of WorkMental HealthEconomic Progress
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