• Hurdles in Japan bid to give women top posts

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    TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s appointment of a record number of women to his cabinet highlights efforts to power the economy by boosting the female workforce — but he faces myriad challenges turning that vision into reality.

    According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), women are not largely represented at the top echelons of private and public entities in Asia.

    “In the corporate sector, the World Economic Forum reports that women comprise less than 6 percent of company board members in Asia and the Pacific, compared with 15 percent in the United States and 17 percent in Europe,” the bank said in a statement issued earlier this month.

    On Wednesday, Abe gave key jobs — including the justice ministry and oversight of the embattled nuclear power sector — to women, who now make up more than a quarter of the 18-strong cabinet.

    “Creating a society where women can shine is a big challenge that the Abe cabinet is taking on,” said the conservative premier, who swept to power in late 2012 on a ticket to kickstart the lumbering economy.

    The move followed growing calls for Japan to make better use of its highly-educated but underemployed women as a rapidly ageing population strains the public purse.

    Tokyo wants to boost the ratio of women in senior positions to 30 percent by 2020, up from 11 percent now, one of the lowest rates in the world.

    Dozens of Japan’s biggest firms — including Toyota, Panasonic and All Nippon Airways — recently announced targets for boosting the number of executive women.

    But the task is a daunting one in a country where sexist attitudes are still prevalent and men dominate politics and business.

    Long working hours, boozy after-work sessions with the boss, and not enough childcare facilities are also among the reasons why many working Japanese women opt to stay at home or give up hopes of promotion after having children.

    “The corporate gender gap in Japan is thought to be a result of indirect discrimination against women,” said Kazuo Yamaguchi, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.

    “For example, willingness to work long hours seems to be a condition for promotion for women, but not for men,” he said.

    Meaningful change in company demographics will only come if more Japanese women want to work and the environment welcomes them, added French sociologist Muriel Jolivet, who has been living and teaching in Japan for years and has written several books on Japanese society.

    For its part, the ADB launched on September 1 the Asian Women Leaders Program to “address a glaring absence of women from leadership roles in Asia and the Pacific.”

    “The AWLP will dissect why there are so few women leaders in the region and explore how this can be changed through targeted public policies and programs,” said Shireen Lateef, Senior Advisor on Gender at ADB.

    AFP WITH INPUTS FROM ADB

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