Helping women get back into the workplace
In Japan, about 70% of working women quit their jobs when they start a family. Though many hope to eventually return to the workplace, it is difficult for them to return to a full-time working environment afterwards. According to the government, approximately 2.45 million women aged between 25 and 65 wish to work full-time in companies.
As one of the measures to encourage women to return to the workforce, Japan Women’s University (JWU) started the so-called “Recurrent Education-Employment System” with the government’s financial support in September, 2007. In the one-year program, women who have bachelor degrees and working experience take courses to update their work skills, such as business English and introductory and advanced computer training. The program also provides career counseling so students can find new jobs which match their related experience and skills.
“I would like to enjoy the rest of my life in a useful way,” says a 44-year-old woman who has been taking the course since last September. She quit her research job because she wanted to raise her two kids who are now 20 and 17. Although she has been working at home for a publisher for 20 years, she says: “Working at home alone is dead-end work. Working for a company full time is more interactive.” But returning to a full-time job has been difficult due to family issues such as the lack of daycare for her mother, she says. She points out that some women don’t even have time to attend the program due to these difficulties.
However, because of the labor shortage and an increasing awareness of diversity in human resources in companies, the movement encouraging women to come back to the office is attracting much more attention in the business community now.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) is one of the advocates for such a movement. On June 27, its Corporate Social Responsibility Committee organized a half-day “mini-curriculum” as part of an ACCJ pilot program called “Soft Landing.” Held at Shinsei Bank headquarters, the mini-curriculum featured workshops presented by representatives from Shinsei Bank, State Street and Deutsche Bank Groupto enhance JWU students’ interviewing, resume writing and logical thinking skills.
Victoria Becker, a lawyer for State Street and a member of the ACCJ CSR Committee, says, “The Japanese government initiative to help women return to the workforce is inspiring enthusiastic support from the international business community. The ACCJ has taken on this project as part of its ‘kanreki’ (60th anniversary) celebrations this year, bringing together two important interests: women who want to return to work and companies looking for good employees. State Street and other ACCJ member companies are very excited about the quality of the JWU students we have met so far and about the possibilities going forward.”
A human resource consultant for corporate clients says, “The banking industry is now lacking human resources, especially in private banking services. Women are needed in these services to help a bank differentiate itself from its competitors. Companies nowadays cannot adapt to changes in markets without diversified human resources. Career blanks or being too old cannot be a reason not to hire these women.”
What kind of women are taking the recurrent education program? Keiko Fukuzawa, a visiting professor at JWU, says, “About 50% of participants are single women who wish to resume their careers.” She says the program is a sort of course that bridges undergraduate and postgraduate education.
“There is interaction between housewives and career women in the program,” explains Fukuzawa. “Housewives in their 30s tend to envy career women because of their corporate career path, while career women in their 30s tend to envy housewives because they look happy, with their married lives and children. Everyone wants something they don’t have.”
Fukuzawa stresses that placing students in full-time jobs is not necessarily the ultimate goal of the program but points out that “interaction among students with different backgrounds is important for women to know themselves and their position in society.” She says building a sustainable working career and pushing women who wish to return to the workplace are also important in the program.
However, it is also true that the required skills and experience for returning vary from company to company. One HR manager at an international banking firm, says, “I think the idea and its framework are good. But in reality, companies generally consider candidates’ experience and skills so they can meet criteria for individual professional services in individual departments, which is very important. Therefore, some companies would focus on their working careers and professionalism from candidates.”
Time management is biggest issue
Whatever the backgrounds of returning women are, the common issue for them is “time management,” as they call it. Mayumi Maeda, who obtained an accounting degree at a university in the United States during her 15-year stint as a housewife there, says that in a job interview she played up the fact that she had managed her life as a student, wife and mother, which resulted in a successful return to full-time work as an accounting associate.
Kaori Onodera, who returned to work after taking one year off to care for her twins, says, “Getting the right balance between working and child-care is difficult. For me, the solution was my mother’s support at home. I was very lucky in that respect. Although I wanted to do everything by myself, it turned out to be impossible. When you try to do everything by yourself, a lot of problems arise which have a negative influence over both work and child-raising.”
It has been pointed out that the Japanese society doesn’t have an enough social support to help returning women achieve a balance between working and child-raising. Some commentators refer to examples of Germany, which has a strict regulation on working overtime, and Belgium where parents can go home around noon on Wednesdays and Fridays when schools finish early.
So it seems that in Japan, support for women who wish to return to full-time work has only just started. Companies are still carefully evaluating this movement, especially how returning women perform on the job. While the participants’ motivation is very high and supporting frameworks are being developed in Japan, they commonly say they don’t know where to start and how to find jobs which match both their skills and companies’ needs. Therefore, it will take more than a support framework like the recurrent education program. Changes in working style in the current male-oriented society will be required for a better working environment for women.