The importance of women for Japan

29.09.17 Publication:

What is Prime Minister Abe’s plan for “womenomics” all about and can it really ever amount to anything meaningful in a country as conservative as Japan? We know that many more women have joined the workforce in recent years, putting Japan’s level of female participation in the labour market above America’s for the first time.

But while such a rise in the quantity of women working is good, it does not yet mean that the quality of the jobs being filled by women truly reflects the human capital those females have been given, at public expense, in schools and universities, nor, quite often, the skills they acquired in their early years working before, perhaps, leaving to have families.

This under-use of half of the population, at least in terms of their economic contribution, is a big waste. It also means that the creative, innovative energies of that female half of the population are not contributing as much to national productivity and wealth as they might do. Why don’t we see very many women in the senior ranks of business or government ministries?

Why not indeed? Faced with such a frustrating picture as the one I have just described, it is often tempting to ascribe this disappointing outcome to culture. There is the national culture, one which places a high value on family life, and which has traditionally given substantial duties of care both for children and for elderly parents to females. And there is corporate culture, in which working long hours and dedicating yourself to your employer and your colleagues is prized as important.

These certainly are important factors. There is especially a big contradiction in public policy between the desire to encourage more women to join the work force and the reluctance to expand welfare systems and benefits to substitute for traditional family-based welfare.

Yet in the past few weeks a rather sad event made me reflect a little differently about this issue in Japan. The sad event was the death in early August at the tragically young age of 60, from cancer, of my former female colleague who had been chief executive of The Economist Group in 1997-2008 at the same time as I was serving as editor-in-chief (1993-2006)

Her name was Helen Alexander, and she was the second female CEO that our company had had. But this does not mean that it was common in Britain for women to hold senior management positions in big businesses: women have tended to rise faster in media businesses than in other sectors, and The Economist Group is only a medium-sized firm, despite the worldwide reputation of its brand.

More notable, in fact, was what Helen Alexander achieved after she had left The Economist: in 2009 she was chosen as the first ever female president of the Confederation of British Industry, our equivalent to the Keidanren.

As a result of Helen’s early death, I was asked to write a tribute to her for the Financial Times, which they published on August 7th. This is what made me think a little differently about the progress of women into senior positions in Japan. When I spoke to someone who had worked at the Confederation of British Industry when she became president, he reminded me just how unusual it was in 2009 for women to be in such senior positions in the UK too.

The point is that this was only 8 years ago, and even then the Confederation of British Industry was an almost entirely male organisation. So this slow progress of women into senior positions is a worldwide phenomenon. And in Japan, like in Britain, the arrival of women as chief executives, Keidanren presidents or top-ranking bureaucrats may just be a matter of time.

For the past year, I have been making interviews with Japanese women who have achieved leadership or innovative positions in various fields, which I will be writing up as my next book. It has been clear how unusual these women are, and how they have found all sorts of obstacles in the way of their careers. But what is also clear is how much things have changed over the past few decades, ever since equal employment rights were put into Japanese law in the mid-1980s.

That is really quite recent. In fact, it happened just at the time that my colleague, Helen Alexander, was joining The Economist as a young manager in 1985, having done an MBA at the Insead Business School in France. She was ahead of her time in Britain. And those women now rising in Japanese organisations are similarly pioneers. The future of Japan, I am firmly convinced, will be shaped as much by the next generation of female leaders as it will be by males.