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By: Debbie Howard

In past columns, I’ve written about the changing gender roles in Japan, the importance of incorporating women in the workplace, and even the statistically-proven positive effect of all this in improving Japan’s flat birthrate.

Although recently the labor force participation is rising slightly at the macro level, women are still dropping out of the workforce to get married and have children, and encouraging married women to work during their child raising years is a major challenge for the Japanese government. It’s no secret that when compared to other countries, Japan still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality.

Let’s take a look at how Japan stacks up. Japan is ranked 8th out of 179 countries according to the “Human Development Index” (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) <Source: UNDP “Human Development Report 2008”>. That is higher than the U.S. (ranked 15th), the U.K. (21st) and Germany (23rd).

However, when it comes to the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) — which measures the extent to which women take an active part in economic and political life — Japan’s record is far less impressive, ranking only 58th out of 108 countries. In fact, Japan’s GEM ranking is the lowest among the top 25 countries in the HDI ranking, falling after Panama (49th), Bulgaria (44th) and Namibia (40th).

And whereas only 10.1% of Japanese women were employed in managerial positions (1.7% in government offices) in 2005, in the U.S. the comparable statistic was 42% (23% in government offices). In the boardroom the statistics are also revealing: in the U.S., women account for 15% of the directors who sit on corporate boards, compared to fewer than 1% in Japan. <Sources: Gender Equality Bureau, Cabinet Office, 2007 and A Guide to Womenomics, The Economist)>

On the positive side, however, companies in Japan are beginning to see the economic advantages of incorporating women into their workforces. Attitudes toward promoting more working women (and at higher levels) are clearly beginning to shift. Whereas foreign companies took a leadership role early on, these days some 25% of Japanese companies having adopted childcare systems that are over and above those required by law. And more than 60% of companies have adopted shorter working hours in an effort to make more “parent-friendly” workplaces. Some of the most progressive (i.e., Mizuho, Mitsui-Bussan and Sumitomo Shoji) even have on-site childcare facilities.

In addition to focusing on how to incorporate more women in to the workplace, women are also viewed increasingly as an important customer market segment due to their increasing economic power. Connecting with female consumers is an effort worth examining for nearly every product and service category. Companies need to ask:

– What are their unmet needs? How can our products and services better meet these needs?

– How can we connect with economically empowered females? How do I portray them in advertising?

– How do we reach them with new media?

It is interesting to note that recent global studies have shown that companies who do NOT embrace the concept of the “economic importance” of women are actually doomed to fail. This is because women are not only an important talent pool for improving business strategies and operations . . . they also make up to 80% of consumer purchases worldwide. Some experts propose that companies that adapt to women will not only become the all-round employers of choice, but they will also become the most effective 21st century marketers.

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

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 6th April 2009

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