Thursday, December 29, 2005

More on Japan's "Gender Equality Plan"

I've just had the interesting experience of taking part in a multi-way discussion for a radio show (my only previous similar experience was an ill-fated job interview - it's hard to give your best performance when you can hear a bunch of people on the other side of the world giggling at private jokes and their institute is next to an airport so every second question in interrupted by a plane taking off or landing). Fortunately, this time it wasn't on anything related to my real work. Instead, it was about Japan's plan for new gender equality laws - they wanted some ordinary punters as well as an expert or two and had apparently found my blog.

You can find the debate about 37 minutes into the Wednesday Thursday evening "World Have Your Say" program on the BBC World Service. I'm not sure I added much to the discussion, since we all pretty much agreed on most points and the other participants were asked first. However, having actually seen the main details of the "Gender Equality Plan" (which I hadn't seen prior to the program!) and had a few minutes to mull it over I think we were substantially too soft on it. Sure, few could complain about better maternity rights and care provision, but that is not really about gender equality, it is merely an attempt to boost the birthrate (or stop it declining further). It is not clear that there will really be anything there to address the discriminatory system under which women are generally treated as second class citizens in the workforce.

Let me explain further. Many of Japan's biggest companies operate a "dual track system" with one career track for managers, and one for clerical staff. The managers have a proper career structure and (at least eventually) get paid far more, and the clerical staff have basically no promotion prospects at all. Maybe that doesn't sound too unreasonable, but the shocking fact is that essentially all men are put in the management track, and almost no women. For example, in 1991 JAL (the flagship air carrier) hired 147 men and 3 women to the career track, in addition to 52 women to the non-career track. For the financial company Tokyo Marine Insurance, the equivalent figures were 424 men and 24 women hired to career-track positions and 553 women and no men to the non-career track (figures from here). Clearly this is institutionalised discrimination on a scale that would not be considered remotely acceptable in the UK. It can certainly be argued that societal attitudes play a role - some women don't want to commit themselves to long hours and the risk of relocation, although it's also possible that these conditions are added as a way of discouraging them rather than because they are really necessary.

It remains to be seen if their proposal to outlaw "indirect discrimination" will have sufficient teeth to address this. Otherwise, this will not be a "Gender Equality Plan" as a westerner would understand it, but rather a "Please have babies, but don't give up your menial dead-end job" plan. The fact that they feel the need to specifically mention "Doll Day" (a festival in whch young girls are basically taught that they should grow up to be a good wife and mother) suggests to me that they don't plan significant changes.

I promise I'll get back to posting about science soon, honest...

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