Japan’s First Lady: ‘We Are in Need of Bold Change’

Japanese women are dropping out of the workforce at an alarming rate, with an almost 40 percent loss predicted to occur by 2050. What’s to blame? The 24/7 work culture

work culture

This week, Japan’s First Lady Akie Abe gave a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. addressing why so few women persist in the Japanese workforce. And she’s placing blame squarely on the lack of flexibility within her country’s work culture.

Sound familiar?

In her CSIS speech, at an event entitled “Womenomics: Why it Matters for Japan and the World,” Akie Abe recommended promoting a more flexible workplace culture, one that discourages excessively long hours in the office. “In Japan there’s still a tendency for people to believe that excessive overtime equals hard work or success,” Abe reportedly said.

With a deflating economy and an aging, rapidly shrinking workforce – by 2050, 40 percent of Japan's population will be older than 65 – Japan is at an economic and cultural crossroads. Bringing more women into the workforce is a necessity for the country’s future. Both Akie Abe and her husband, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have publicly supported women’s participation in Japan’s workforce.

Similarly, the United States certainly has its own disappointing track record when it comes to work-life balance. A recent Gallup poll showed the average time worked by full-time employees is 46.7 hours a week – that’s pretty much an extra work day. What’s more, full-time workers in the U.S. get an average of only eight paid vacation days after their first year on the job according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare this to nations such as Brazil, Finland and France that get as much as 30 days off per year, excluding holidays.

For women, the work-life balance divide gets even more complicated.The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) currently ranks the U.S. as 26th among nations when it comes to work-life balance (it’s especially bad for women: “men are more likely to spend more hours in paid work, while women spend longer on unpaid domestic work,” therefore underscoring that “fewer hours in paid work for women do not necessarily result in greater leisure time.” Additionally, the U.S. was the only OECD-ranked country without a parental leave policy.)

“For women to flourish in their jobs, just as men do… there is a need for more flexible work styles, like telework,” said Abe, a perspective that rings as true here in the U.S. as it does in Japan. But in the U.S., a recent survey from Flex+Strategy Group showed that women get much less flexibility when it comes to telecommuting options: 43 percent of women surveyed reported completing their work in an office setting compared to 27 percent of men.

Abe’s focus on workplace flexibility may seem myopic when you factor in education as the key for women’s success in the workplace, but consider this: Despite a highly educated female population (48 percent of Japanese women are college educated), 70 percent of Japanese women stop working for a decade or more after their first child. For Japanese women, cultural factors, including unsupportive work environments and lack of child care options, appear to play a much bigger role in their long-term career.

Abe and her husband seem to be in alignment on this issue: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promoted policy initiatives such as improving Japan’s day care system by increasing the number of child care spaces and creating more jobs for child care workers and teachers.

But corporate leaders in Japan, and globally, would do well by paying close attention to Akie Abe’s support of a flexible work culture. This is a much more difficult mindset to change and is clearly quite pervasive, as the 24/7 culture of work-as-lifestyle and constant connection via electronic devices has become the norm in many countries and various fields. For Abe’s “womenomics” initiatives to truly succeed, both in Japan and abroad, corporations and CEOs need to get on board too.

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