International Women's Day (March 8) has a special significance for HR and human resources management this year: It not only offers a chance to look back since a 2007 revision gave Japan its first binding law for gender equity in employment; it also drives home the need for effective--and hence fair--opportunities in a shrinking workforce whose baby boomers began retiring en mass that same year.
That the world's No. 2 economy was well into the 21st century before its graying and dwindling population prompted it to do so, speaks to the challenges facing women, who have traditionally been relegated to career tracks with few chances for promotion to management, as well as those charged with integrating them into an often reluctant corps of professionals. Both have their work cut out for them. But it was even more so before the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law was revamped to take effect April 1, 2007.
Whereas before the EEOL merely wagged a finger at gender discrimination and harassment, it now sports teeth that threaten penalties--including public disclosure--and mandates that allegations be investigated. Violations include discrimination against women--or men--as well as indirect discrimination such as height, weight, physical-strength and transfer requirements that might disadvantage them. It also covers wage cuts, demotion, retirement, contract changes and part-time status for women who are pregnant or with newborns. Is it working? The official verdict is pending. A Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare report on compliance is due sometime this year.
Statistics in recent years and prevailing attitudes, however, show significant progress is unlikely in just one year. Almost all women join the workforce after finishing school but about 70 percent quit after getting married or having children. Women occupied no more than 10 percent of management positions in 2005, according to Japan's Gender Equality Bureau - an increase of only 1 percent from a decade prior. A 2000 Labor Ministry survey showed women held only 1.6 percent of positions equal to director and 2.6 that were the equivalent of section chef, up slightly from 1998. Women in team-leader positions actually slipped to 7.7 percent from 7.8 percent.
While HR and HRM bent on tapping this increasingly valuable management potential would be unwise to assume changes in attitude need occur only in men, the survey also points clearly to the heart of the problem. Reasons given for the discrepancy include, "women do not have the knowledge, experience, or analytical abilities essential for the position" and "women work shorter years and retire before reaching the managerial level."
With the exception of the rather un-analytical assumptions about female "analytical abilities," such reasons are no doubt real as well as perceived. They reflect the need for management training, career development and retention efforts that target the advancement of women to meet both government and corporate goals. Despite recent government efforts, the burden will continue to fall exponentially on the HR and HRM of most firms operating in Japan.
The way Japanese government and business have shaped the prevailing caregiver role for women in past times of stagnant population growth such as today's, shows that whenever a contradiction between falling birthrates and gender equity occur, the perceived needs of the former will prevail. So writes Yuki W. P. Huen of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. The opinion is hardly that of a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.
A recent Law and Society Association study found that while in general societal attitudes about female employment have become more supportive since the EEOL passed in 1985, "descriptive statistics reveal that social attitudinal transformations on women's employment rights have occurred quite unevenly across groups," such as gender, age and life-course transitions.
With experienced employees retiring in greater numbers and fewer candidates to replace them, high levels of government and business recognize the need to provide more opportunities for career development and advancement for women. This includes increased childcare leave and other accommodations implemented in both sectors to make jobs more female-friendly.
The fiscal 2007 budget for promotion of gender equality in Japan was approximately 4,700 billion yen, with about 30 percent going directly to, "support the efforts of women and men to harmonize work with their family and community lives," Nobuko Kurosaki, a Japan representative, recently told the Fourth World Conference on Women. These are admirable words.
The onus, however, is clearly on corporate HRM and HR to seize upon the current state of affairs to shape and apply viable strategies that ensure they are realized for women - and the firms whose future success may very well depend on their ability to attract, welcome and retain them as managers.