Tokyo, Japan – When Nami Sakai returned to Tokyo in 2016 after 15 years working in the United States, she struggled to acclimatise to Japanese corporate culture.
As a woman and self-described “outsider”, Sakai, who works in consulting, found that her ability to effect change and get her voice across had diminished, irrespective of seniority.
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“In Japan, men have always been more dominant in the workplace,” Sakai told Al Jazeera, describing the work culture as “fundamentally” different from her experience in the US.
“The power hierarchy is so ingrained that men often don’t consider where women are, in terms of status.”
Japanese corporate culture, which prides itself on gruelling hours spent in the office, has long been derided by critics as patriarchal and unfriendly to women.
Japanese women on average earned 21.1 percent less than their male counterparts in 2021, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), nearly double the average wage gap among developed economies.
Meanwhile, women make up only 14.7 percent of senior roles in Japan, compared with 42 percent in the US, 40 percent in Sweden and 37 percent in the UK, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to tackle this gender divide as part of his “new capitalism” aimed at narrowing societal inequality.
Under measures announced by Kishida earlier this year, large firms will be required to disclose differences in salaries between men and women, the ratio of female managers, and the rate of male employees taking parental leave in their annual financial reports.
The disclosure requirements, which will affect more than 18,000 businesses with more than 300 employees, are scheduled to take effect from March 2023, the end of the fiscal year.
Natsumi Yamada, a gender inclusion officer at a government agency in greater Tokyo, said she is hopeful greater transparency will spur change in the corporate world.
“The younger generation has a better sense of gender equality, so once this type of information is disclosed, I believe the companies struggling to achieve gender equality would have difficulty hiring bright minds,” Yamada told Al Jazeera.
“The younger generation can’t really afford the lifestyle of women staying home and men going to work, so that will also be a push factor for inclusivity.”
The policy builds off the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics”, which sought to introduce structural reforms in the workplace, including measures to encourage greater female participation.
Kathy Matsui, an economic strategist who coined the term “womenomics” to describe Abe’s focus on ensuring women could “shine” in corporate Japan, has argued that increasing women’s participation could boost Japan’s gross domestic product by at least 15 percent.
Japanese women have made gains in the workplace in recent years. The average wage gap between men and women has shrunk by one-third since 2005, while the overall female employment rate has risen above the OECD average.
But by many measures, Japan’s female workers still lag their male counterparts and female peers across the developed world.
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022, released on Wednesday, Japan ranks 116 out of 145 surveyed countries across a range of metrics including political representation and economic empowerment, making it an extreme outlier in the developed world.
Though entry-level male and female employees start off with similar wages, according to Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare statistics, Japanese men’s average monthly salary peaks between the ages of 55 and 59 at about 420,000 yen ($3,036), compared with 270,000 yen ($1,951) for women.
Though Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act penalises discrimination based on immutable characteristics, it does not cover wage-based discrimination. In 2018, the Japanese parliament passed a law promoting quotas for women in politics, but similar moves have not been extended to the workplace.
Yoshiko Ogawa, who works in human resources in Tokyo, has seen women garner greater respect in the workplace since she began her career in the male-dominated real estate industry.
“Female workers were expected to serve tea to visitors regardless of their work position,” Ogawa, 36, told Al Jazeera.
But Ogawa, who is now the mother of three children, said child-rearing remains a big issue for women as daycare is often expensive and oversubscribed.
Though Japan guarantees parental leave of up to 58 weeks – generous by international standards – critics say that women are often short-changed in the hiring process because of their ability to bear children.
“Employers see that as a threat, so they often hire men as there’s more potential for longevity,” Nina Cataldo, co-founder of Brave and Bold Mastermind, a business accelerator programme for Asian women entrepreneurs in Japan, told Al Jazeera. “There’s no conversation politically about actually reshaping the image of women.”
Cataldo said many Japanese women see being a housewife as more appealing than the alternative of “working from 8am to midnight every day and being harassed by their bosses.”
“And I think that’s why the system isn’t changing: women have an out, and in some ways that’s a bit more freeing.”
Sarah Louisa Birchley, a business professor at Toyo Gakuen University, said the ambition of “womenomics” had failed to materialise.
“The pandemic also set the dial back somewhat as women were disproportionately disadvantaged during that time as many working mothers had to quit their jobs to take care of children or support their husbands working from home,” Birchley told Al Jazeera.
Birchley said many women are dissuaded by a lack of affordable childcare, high-pressure work environments and overtime culture, and the required attendance at “nomikai”, or drinking parties, which she likens to “old boys’ clubs”.
“There are also strict guidelines on how women have to behave during the recruitment process; their skirt length is specified, along with the type of pantyhose they should wear, there is advice on makeup, hair colour, and even on what should be in their handbag,” she said.
“Modern women find this restricts their personality and many students complain to me how uncomfortable it is having to ‘play a part’ or ‘act’ in a particular role.”
For Sakai, the consultant in Tokyo, the government’s efforts to support women in the workplace have generated mixed feelings. She wonders if the policy will be just a “cosmetic change” and whether women will be “tokenized”.
“I guess it’s good to have female managers, but are they qualified? And if they’re qualified, but still outnumbered, what kind of support system is in place?” she said. “They don’t need to be babied, but what are we actually doing to empower women?”