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By: Debbie Howard

I have often said that Japanese companies tend to be losing out when it comes to utilizing Japanese females as a valuable resource . . . especially compared to their foreign counterparts who are much more proactive about creating favorable workplaces for females. While foreign firms still seem to have the lead, it appears that Japanese companies are beginning to institute practices that are gaining recognition.

For example, Nikkei Woman recently conducted an evaluation of over 400 companies as regards the “woman-friendliness” of their work environments (i.e., “The Best Company for Women to Work For”). Following its selection as the highest-ranked company in 2006, Procter & Gamble (P&G) was again selected in 2008 as “Number 1.” Nikkei concluded that these results are the outcome of P&G’s efforts for leveraging diversity to best serve its customers. Following P&G in the top five were one foreign-affiliated company, and three Japanese companies: IBM Japan, Matsushita Electric, Industrial Co., Ltd, ORIX and SONY.

Recently, employment patterns are becoming more diversified, with a higher percentage of part-time, temporary, contract and other non-regular workers, particularly among females. In fact, because of the labor shortage and increasing awareness of diversity, a movement encouraging women to return to the office and re-start their careers is now attracting attention in both the foreign and Japanese business community.

Statistics show that the labor force participation rate of Japanese women declines due to marriage, childbirth and childcare, with some 70% giving up their jobs when starting a family; however, many of them would actually prefer to work throughout their childbirth/childcare years.

It has been pointed out that Japan lacks adequate social supports to help returning women achieve balance between working and child-raising. However, recently we can see early signs of improvement for women who wish to return to full-time work. Whilesome companies still carefully evaluate the situation, key business, government and academic entities are instituting programs to address the needs.

For example, Japan Women’s University (JWU) started the so-called “Recurrent Education-Employment System” with Government of Japan (GOJ) financial support in September, 2007, in an effort to encourage women to return to the workforce.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) is also supporting the movement through its “Soft Landing” Task Force, which provides skills-building workshops as well as bringing together women who want to return to work and companies looking for good employees. These two entities are working in cooperation as a way of supporting the GOJ’s efforts to reintroduce women into the work force.

Other efforts focus more broadly on helping women in the workplace with leadership, diversity and inclusion education and training. For example, the GOLD organization (Global Organization for Leadership and Diversity) will co-sponsor a day-long symposium this Fall offering educational programs, interactive seminars and speakers addressing leadership from three points of view: leadership, diversity and culture, and business economic opportunities.

Better utilization of Japanese females in the workforce will require many efforts such as these, along with changes in working style at the company level that create better working environments for female employees.

Debbie Howard is Chairman of CarterJMRN and President Emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 6th August 2008

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