Shinzo Abe 2018

UN Photo/Cia Pak Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan addresses the seventy-third session of the United Nations General Assembly.

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Makiko Eda, Chief Representative Officer, Japan, Member of the Executive Committee, Tokyo Office, World Economic Forum Tokyo


The news that there would be just one woman in the Japanese cabinet following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent reshuffle came as a shock. A policy of “Womenomics” has been a pillar of the country’s current government. I had expected this reshuffle would build on the previous number of female cabinet members – two – not reduce it.

Developments like this remind us that despite significant progress, we still have a long way to go before we achieve gender parity.

Why gender parity? Among other benefits, it creates a broader talent pool, allowing for more innovation. A wide range of research shows that improving gender parity may result in significant economic dividends (which vary depending on the particular economy and its specific challenges).

For example, notable recent estimates suggest that economic gender parity could add an additional $550 billion to the GDP of Japan, as well as $1,750 billion to the US’s GDP, $250 billion to the UK’s, $320 billion to France’s and $310 billion to Germany’s. So what is standing in the way, when Japan recognizes not only the moral worth of gender parity, but also its economic benefits?

At the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2014, Japan’s leaders acknowledged that its female labour force is its most underutilized resource, and that the country must become a place where women can shine. By 2020, it pledged to fill 30% of leading positions with women. That there is currently one female minister in Abe’s cabinet does not seem promising.

In the 2017 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Japan ranked 114th out of 144 countries. While Japan has made some notable progress on economic gender parity, other countries have been improving faster. With the recent appointment of Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh as acting president of Vietnam following the passing of President Tran Dai Quang, Asia is moving closer towards female empowerment. So where does Japan stand in the global arena?

While Japan has made progress in wage equality, as well as in its share of female legislators, senior officials and managers – countering the downward trend globally – discrimination towards women is deep-rooted, as the case of Tokyo Medical University shows.

The recent news that Tokyo Medical University manipulated its entrance exams, marking women’s results down to prevent them from winning a place while inflating men’s results, made headlines around the world. The university has now replaced its disgraced former president with its first female president.

One of the university’s first reactions was that it did not recognize manipulating entrance exam scores as “out of the ordinary”, as the practice has existed for years among universities.

In the Global Gender Gap Report, the highest possible score is 1 (parity) and the lowest score is 0 (imparity). Japan’s score is 0.657. The country is making efforts toward true gender parity. A law for the promotion of women’s activities, for example, has introduced targets for the proportion of female employees for companies with more than 300 employees. Meanwhile, in 2016, women’s employment rate was 72.7% – an increase of 15.6% from 30 years ago with 5% of the rise occurring in the last four years.

While I have personally encountered a challenge or two as one of the few female presidents in the corporate world in Japan, I still believe in the potential that Japan holds in marching towards gender parity.

I often hear my peers say they are doubtful that a large number of women are ready “to join the club”. If formal titles and years of experience or traditional biases are used to determine the readiness of women for management positions, of course, they may not be deemed “ready”. This is where we need leaders to take a leap of faith and give opportunities more aggressively to women to counterbalance long-standing traditional bias.

It will also require focused sponsorship and, let’s face it, not every woman will be successful. But this is where it all begins. Let’s not let gender be the deciding factor when it comes to a person’s character and capability, and let’s not let a successful woman be the only one in the boardroom and, therefore, judged by her gender. I believe this risk-taking at the leadership level is what makes diversity possible and benefits the workforce. It means everyone has an opportunity to aspire and develop – men and women, young and experienced.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution means many of the jobs we perform today will not exist in the future. According to The Future of Jobs report, 71% of work today is performed by humans; by 2025 machines will do more work than humans. This presents urgent an urgent challenge that requires more reskilling programmes, remote work opportunities and safety nets to protect at-risk workers and communities.

But this same challenge can be an opportunity for women. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution where the rules and practices of the past don’t guarantee future success, leaders must broaden their perspectives and look for previously ignored, emerging talents.

In a world where the speed of change and advancement is increasing through the implementation of technologies, being human-centric holds more importance than ever. According to The Future of Jobs report, while 85% of companies plan to provide reskilling opportunities, just half expect to work with public education institutions, and only 34% of the training will be accredited outside of the company.

We live in a time where multi-stakeholder action is critical, where inclusiveness and diversity are crucial to becoming a front-runner. Japan not only has an opportunity to leap forward but also to create dramatic change. Is Japan ready?