Gender issues in the Japanese workplace

I’ve been working since I was seventeen years old. In the past eleven years of employment, I have been successful in most of my jobs, by which I mean I had mutual respect with my bosses and fellow employees, and felt like a valued member of a team as well as an important individual. I felt skilled at my job and respected for my abilities. Even when I had a boss I didn’t get along with, I never assumed that it was due to my gender. My role in the workplace was always a direct result of my work ethic, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be successful because I was a woman.Mind-the-gap

I worked in restaurants for ten years, which is an industry dominated by female employees, although my managers or owners were predominantly male. Now I find myself in a workplace where female employees are the minority and male authority is a given. While I still have no inherent problem with submitting to authority of any sex, coming to teach in Japan put me in a workplace with different ethics than I was accustomed to, and I find myself wondering how to deal with the subconscious levels of sexism in the Japanese schools.

When I was originally studying to teach abroad, I was told that companies liked to hire women over men because they were less likely to cause the “trouble” that a young male in a foreign country can cause. Since moving here, I feel like foreign female teachers are still the minority, and native female Japanese teachers are definitely the minority in Japanese schools, with a few exceptions for preschool and elementary. In 1984, the percentage of female teachers was as follows:

Preschool- 93%

Elementary- 56%

Junior high- 33%

High school- 18%

University- 8%

Today, those percentages have increased very little. When you look at the percentages of women in higher positions such as principles, only 4% of middle and high schools employ women in these roles. I was amazed to learn that female principles even existed! In the list of Japan’s Nikkei 225 companies, not a single company is run by a woman, and only thirty even have women as board members. Teaching is actually one of the only lifetime professional careers available to women in Japan. Japan is ranked 101 out of 135 countries for worst gender pay equality. Women working the same jobs as men in Japan receive an average of 33% less in wages. Japan ranked worse than China and the US, which has an average of 19%. Because Japan is such an advanced first-world nation, we forget that their society is still very traditional, with clear cut gender roles and the belief that a woman’s place is in the home.OECD_gender_wage_gap_2006

Policies by the Japanese government have been purposefully designed to reinforce these values, such as making child-care virtually non-existent, forcing women to stay home with their children. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now proposing that companies should offer women in Japan three-years of maternity leave because babies need to be in their mother’s arms for this prescribed amount of time. Conveniently, this also practically ensures their inability to return to their original jobs. While the ideal “breadwinner marriage” of the 1960s has since readapted itself in most countries, it lives on strong in Japan and is a major factor of Japan’s current economic issues and population crisis.


Since women who have children (especially those without living parents) are almost guaranteed to leave the workforce, many are choosing to have less children later in life, while others are choosing to avoid pregnancy altogether. The declining birthrate has significant long-term effects on economic issues like social security. Taking women out of the workplace also depletes the nation of a huge supply of laborers who could be contributing to the country’s economic growth. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognizes these problems and has admitted that Japan needs more women in the workforce. He has mentioned the need for more child care and hopes to make day care available for 200,000 more children by 2015. Yet he has not publicly addressed the issue of wage inequality that currently exists, or the fact that requiring women to take extended maternity may still deter women from having more children, further impacting the population growth.

“Indeed, the countries with the most generous child-rearing policies have some of the highest fertility rates and the highest rates of female labor market participation.” – Chad Steinberg, International Monetary Fund, 2012

While the maternity leave mentioned does not specifically reference which spouse, male or female, must take the time off, some companies in Japan have made it clear to women that they will not support the idea of the father staying at home. One woman, with a high-paying job in Tokyo who became pregnant, spoke to LA Times reporter Don Lee, saying “I told them [her company] that my husband was even planning to take a long child-care leave so I could keep working, but the company wasn’t willing to let me stay.” Even if Abe would like to advance the role of Japanese women, he cannot prevent the deep-seeded sexism that is culturally accepted in his country.

As I learn about these problems, I immediately ask myself why the Japanese became and continue to be so sexist? I cannot even begin to tackle all the reasons for this issue here, as I am neither historian, anthropologist, nor psychologist, and regardless of how much information I gather, it will not change the fact that I still must deal with it in my workplace. All I can do at this point is try to understand, and continue to make excellent teaching my ultimate priority. You may be asking yourself, how can you become a better teacher in an environment that hardly even welcomes your participation? Good question; when I find the answer, I’ll let you know!

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