Japan’s glass ceiling

Today’s Financial Times reports that Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, moved yesterday to compel corporate Japan to promote more women. He asked them to set themselves a target – of at least one woman executive per company. As the Ft wrily remarks: “The request was polite and the scale was hardly European in ambition.”

In Japan women fill just 1.6% of executive roles (the European figure is 14%), so if even half of them they comply with their prime minister’s wish it would mark a big jump forward. It’s part of a wider tension within Japan about the role of women in the economy. This is powered in part by their singular demographic profile: a rapidly ageing population and very low immigration mean that they badly need more women to be economically active. Currently their rate is around 60%.

I find Japan’s trajectory particularly interesting. Three or four decades ago it was the country whose economic performance everyone admired. People rushed to try and work out their secret, and came back with reports of their consensus-building teamwork, their attention to quality on the production line, their astute use of technology and so on. They are just emerging from more than a decade of stagnation, but are still an economic powerhouse.

I was lucky enough to visit Japan a few times in the 1970s as a stripling international bureaucrat from OECD. I was, of course, extremely politely received and well treated, but there was a palpable unease at the age gap between the government representatives and myself (probably not helped by the afro haircut I had at the time). When it came to hierarchy, the country had very definite if implicit norms on the place of youth as well as of women.

Japan’s educational progress has outpaced attitudes and practice in their workplaces, most obviously in respect of women’s careers (though also in respect of changing attitudes to learning, with less rote learning). The move to enlarge opportunity for women makes simple economic sense. But here’s a further, slightly odd, thought. On this side of the world we have had speculation over whether a stronger representation of women might have prevented or mitigated some of the worst excesses of the financial sector. If wild and greedy behaviour here might have been tempered by a stronger female presence, might Japan’s need to inject greater dynamism into its economy require the same? It seems too neat a mirroring, but there is something about broadening the composition of the influential parts of our economy which maybe lends it some plausibility.

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