“Abenomics.” “Womanomics.” One undisputed achievement to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s credit is the semantic gloss he’s given the gray science of economics.
Abenomics is familiar enough and can pass without comment. Womanomics is neatly encapsulated in another nice bit of sloganeering: “20-30,” meaning a drive to have women occupying 30% of corporate executive positions by 2020. The corporate empowerment of women, in which Japan lags woefully behind other developed nations, is a key plank in Abe’s economic stimulus platform.
Twenty-eight years after the passage Japan’s first Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986, a mere 10% of managerial-level posts are occupied by women – as against 30 to 40% in the West. If we’re talking director-level, Japan’s percentage falls to 4.1%. And yet, as feminist author and Tokyo Kasei University professor Keiko Higuchi notes, “Half of consumers are women.” That’s Abe’s point – the out-of-touch, male-dominated corporate sector needs to be feminized.
But Shukan Post (April 18), from which most of this information is drawn, headlines its story “Women executives ruin companies.”
Oddly enough, for a government admonition with no punitive teeth in it, “20-30” has had an impact. Major corporations, Shukan Post says, have been tripping over each other in the rush to recruit female managers, executives, board members. The banking sector has led the way – Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp and Mizuho Bank have each this year, both for the first time ever, appointed a female executive officer. They are the most conspicuous examples, and corporations, under some pressure from the Financial Services Agency, are following suit. Corporate Japan, famously resistant to change, chastened perhaps by 20 years of economic doldrums, is changing.
So why Shukan Post’s sour headline?
It’s the haste, the rush, that the magazine finds disturbing. Meeting a numerical target is one thing, but are qualifications beyond gender being adequately considered?
Doing some informal surveying, Shukan Post stumbles on an interesting pattern: many women office workers, apparently, don’t like their women bosses. The evidence is anecdotal rather than statistical, but seems worth a look.
“She’s a typical career woman,” sniffs a 31-year-old service industry employee of her 50-year-old department head. “Never married, never had children. No question, she’s competent. But she’s had to overcome the handicap of being a woman. She went through a lot to get where she is. She regards everyone as either an ally or an enemy. She rounds on underlings for the slightest mistakes. The only way you can get along with her is to flatter her.”
Of course, subordinates say all kinds of things about their bosses, few of them complimentary. Shukan Post’s point is that the women who rose high in the generation following the Equal Employment Opportunity Law have had to claw their way through an obdurate male environment, acquiring on the way some personality traits not necessarily conducive to the highest leadership positions.
A 28-year-old in the housing sector says of her section head, who is in her 40s and single, “She’s a good cook, and proud of it. She has a house party once a month, and we’re all invited. There’ll be a dozen or so bottles of wine, and when we’re all drunk she’ll start, ‘Why isn’t so-and-so here?’ Whoever it was who couldn’t make it is then raked over the coals. It’s like a trial in absentia. So I feel I have to go, whether I want to or not. It’s a damn nuisance. Working under my old male boss was much less strained.”
Norway, notes Shukan Post, over the past 10 years has gone through something like the face-lift Japan is launching. Its percentage of corporate managers rose from 3 in 2003 to 40 today, under pressure of a legally enforceable quota applicable to listed companies. During that time, notes Keio University professor Kotaro Tsuru, Norwegian stocks have fallen 40%, and some companies have gone so far as to get delisted to get around the law.
Higuchi herself has reservations about “20-30.” “Abe is pushing Japan to catch up to the rest of the world,” she says. “But going too fast can be dangerous.”