Gender is a hot topic in the business world at the moment – and nowhere more so than in Japan.    

Back in January, Prime Minister Abe gave a special address at Davos in which he announced his intention to make Japan “a place where women shine.”    This week, he announced his Growth Strategy setting out his plans for Japan’s economic revival.   

Abe reiterated his commitment to raising the proportion of women corporate managers to 30 percent by 2020 from last year’s quite dismal 7.5 percent. Other key policies include requiring listed companies to disclose their women-in-management ratios and measures aimed at slashing childcare waiting lists.  Abe has also pledged to consider changes to tax and pension regulations which currently give preferential treatment to women who stay at home over working women.   

So why has Abe become so interested in closing the gender gap?  Japan currently ranks a lowly 105th out of 136 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index with only 8% of senior managerial positions occupied by women.  Addressing such an imbalance might seem reason enough in itself, but Abe’s real motivators are demographic and economic ones.   

While many countries are dealing with high youth unemployment, Japan is dealing with a labour shortage.  Its population is both ageing and shrinking and a restrictive immigration system means there are few foreign workers.  Wider measures to tackle the labour crunch include relaxing regulation of overtime payments, measures to encourage use of foreign labour and a “robotic revolution” to bring more robot workers to the service and manufacturing industries.   But with only 63% of women working (compared to over 80% of men) the case for womenomics is clear.  Analysts like Goldman Sachs say closing the gender gap could help Japan solve its labour shortage and boost GDP by 13% at the same time.   

Last month Goldmans published “Womenomics 4.0: Time to Walk the Talk”, which notes that there has been a 3% rise in female labour participation since 2010 and more women now working in Japan than ever before.  This is great news, but getting women into work is only a first step.   Men in Japan earn on average 30% more than their female counterparts and a report published jointly this month by the World Economic Forum and McKinsey identifies several barriers to progress for women in Japan, including the lack of role models and opportunities.  To give an example, Fumiko Hayashi, Mayor of Yokohama, herself a positive model of a female senior leader in Japan, has identified the biggest obstacle in her career as the ‘no precedent’ factor.    

So, childcare issues are only part of the problem.  Even were they to be successfully tackled, there are simply very few senior figures acting as reference points for those women who aspire to senior roles.  If Abe is to succeed in making Japan a place where women can truly shine in senior positions, it will mean breaking down years of male-dominated leadership and creating real opportunities for women to be supported to take on more responsibility.   

The recent experience of Tokyo City Assembly’s Ayaka Shiomura underlines how difficult this might prove.  Ms Shiomura was debating family-friendly and fertility-boosting measures last week when she was rather ungallantly heckled by a male lawmaker reportedly shouting“Hurry up and get married,” and “Can’t you give birth?”  This was followed by a breathtakingly inappropriate apology by said lawmaker along the lines that he had not meant to upset those unable to find a husband or bear children.  So there is a long way to go, Mr Abe.