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How Japan can develop more women leaders

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Demonstrator takes part in a march for gender equality to mark the International Women's Day, 8 March 2021, Tokyo, Japan (PHOTO: Issei Kato via Reuters Connect)

In Brief

Gender inequality and the underutilisation of women’s labour continues to be a significant issue in Japanese society. Japan ranked 139 among 156 countries for women’s participation in management positions. According to a Japanese government report from 2020, women occupy only 9.9 per cent of the legislature and 6.6 per cent of corporate department head positions.


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Closing the gender gap would add 5.8 million employees to the Japanese workforce and lift gross domestic product by 10 per cent. But despite the government’s efforts, gender equality in the labour market has been slow to progress.

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Womenomics’ approach attempted to empower women’s economic growth in various ways. One major effort to boost women’s leadership development is the ‘Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace’ that took effect in 2016. The Act forces government agencies and private corporations with more than 300 employees to create action plans for women’s leadership development and to publicly disclose these plans and their progress.

But this policy failed to reach its goal of having women occupy 30 per cent of managerial positions by 2020. The reasons for this are systemic, structural and sociocultural. Examples of restrictions include the lack of childcare, the underutilisation of paternal leave, labour intensive work and the failure of employers to hire and promote women into leadership roles. 

One issue that needs more attention now is women’s lack of leader identity and leadership values. From a sociological perspective, leader identity — the extent to which an individual self-identifies as a leader — is viewed as fluid and co-constructed within the social context. Women constantly adapt themselves to the social identity of their group. Women who experience other women’s leadership are more likely to view themselves as potential leaders. 

It is clear that women experience difficulty in constructing their leadership identities due to limited exposure to women’s leadership networks, female role models and few opportunities to gain experience through leadership tasks. Through socially constructive opportunities, women can gain confidence in leadership roles and start to see themselves as leaders. 

As women shape their own leadership identities, it is critical for them to develop their own values. Increased self-awareness of their own leadership values is essential, especially in crisis situations faced by leaders in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Female leaders need to understand themselves and their core values so that they can optimise their talent and leadership potential.

Without opportunities to develop their leader identity and values, it may be difficult for women to motivate themselves to advance their career. When compared to their male counterparts, Japanese women show less motivation to pursue leadership assignments when approached for such opportunities, widening the gender leadership gap. Women either do not feel equipped to take on more responsibilities or believe that they cannot perform leadership tasks successfully.

Although women are a great reservoir of quality work, Japanese society has been preventing women from building leadership capital. For Japanese women to successfully discover their own values and construct their leader identity, it is important for them to receive learning opportunities that can expand their thinking and provide meaningful interactions with others. There are some successful programs that help women construct their leader identity through activities such as mentoring, coaching, social networking and value development. 

Considering the male-dominated Japanese leadership environment, it is important for women to find peers and role models. They should also engage in self-exploration through women’s programs where they can learn from others’ obstacles and success stories. 

With this support, they can gain confidence and motivation to pursue leadership. These activities need to be offered to women more widely — both internally and externally to their organisations. This will enable women to build on the Japanese government’s legislative actions and create environments in which women can thrive and develop into leaders.

Japanese society needs to increase its investment in women to support their leadership development in a way that will change the future of Japan.

Yoshie Tomozumi Nakamura is Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University.

2 responses to “How Japan can develop more women leaders”

  1. Thanks for an informative analysis. It does not note two ways in which Abe’s Womenomics failed. First, Abe did not increase the number of women in his Cabinet. Second, he did not instruct the ministries to hire and/or promote more women into supervisory or management roles. Admittedly,,these would have largely been symbolic gestures on his part. But doing so would have sent a clear signal to private industry that it is time to change its patriarchal culture.

    While I agree that women lack the leadership identity, they will be reluctant to try to take on leadership roles as long as two other elements are lacking in Japanese society. First, more substantial child care. Abe announced a desire to improve this but little real progress was made. Second, men must be more willing to take on parental duties with their children. This is a very longstanding cultural issue which has changed little in the last 50 years. Allowing men more time from work to care for their children would make it easier for their wives to pursue leadership positions in Japan.

  2. Although the government may have announced a policy endorsing parental leave after the birth of a baby, corporations do not practice this. They continue to harass and even terminate employees who seek time off to care for a newborn. The Tokyo High Court just ruled against a man claiming harassment in just these circumstances: It opined that it was ‘inevitable’ that the men would be terminated.

    As long as the courts refuse to support a person’s right to take parental leave in these circumstances the birth rate in Japan will continue to be low.

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