What’s Holding Japanese Women Back

Prime Minister Abe's call for women to "rise up" is great, but he needs to change Japan's sexist business culture

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Noriyuki Aida / Bloomberg / Getty Images

New employees take notes during a speech by Toshifumi Suzuki, chairman and chief executive officer of Seven & I, unseen, at an initiation ceremony in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, March 14, 2013.

Educated women are a key engine powering “Abenomics,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to revive Japan’s somnolent economy.  In speeches this week at the New York Stock Exchange and the United Nations, Abe has spotlighted women as a major source of potential that has not been fully utilized. “If these women rise up,”  he said, “I believe Japan can achieve strong growth.”

The call for a culture change that would allow women to “lean in” is long overdue. To be sure, Japan has long prioritized equal access to education for women – with a result that Japanese girls score higher in science than boys and constitute nearly half (48%) of university graduates. Yet only 67% of college-educated women are currently employed, and many of them either languish in low-paid, part-time jobs or are shunted into dead-end “office-lady” roles serving tea for male managers and dusting their desks at the end of the day. An astonishingly small portion of Japanese women — 7 percent, according to one estimate — occupy senior positions in management.

(MORE: Japanese Prime Minster Urges Mothers Back to Work)

Data from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that Japanese women with college degrees are much more likely than Americans (74% versus 31%) to quit their jobs voluntarily. But while childcare is a factor in most educated Western women’s decision to take a career break, it’s an impetus for only 32% of their Japanese counterparts.  Instead, highly educated Japanese women are more likely to say that they’re pushed off the career track by unsupportive work environments and managers who do not value them. Nearly two-thirds (63%) say that they quit because their career was not satisfying and a startling 49% left because they felt stymied and stalled.

And while more than three-quarters (77%) of off-ramped Japanese women we surveyed want to rejoin the workforce after a relatively short time out, women attempting to return to their careers find the on-ramp blocked. Only 30% succeed in finding full-time employment, compared to 40% in the U.S. And, among those lucky enough to land a job, nearly half face cuts in salary and many others are forced to accept reduced management responsibilities and curtailed promotional prospects.

Prime Minister Abe has promised to increase childcare facilities to make it easier for mothers to work. But if women are to “rise up,” they will need not just the push from government policies but for corporations themselves to change. Employers have to provide real career opportunities for women, and ways for them to rise in the workplace.  Sponsorship – the powerful backing that inspires, propels, protects and levers qualified women into top leadership roles – is scarce. Only 5% of our Japanese female survey participants reported having a senior-level sponsor.  “I doubt managers are treating female and male subordinates in the same way, giving them the same tasks and developing them,” says Tokiko Shimizu, the Bank of Japan’s first female branch manager. She adds, “If a woman is denied experience with important duties, later on she’ll be told she’s not fit to be a manager.”

(MORE: Sylvia Ann Hewlett on Japan’s Working Women Problem)

In his speeches this week, the Prime Minister has been cheerleading Japanese innovations, such as LED light bulbs and high-speed trains, that were once seen as fantasies. Enabling the rich tranche of talented women to fully reach its potential, according to a 2010 Goldman Sachs study, would boost the Japanese economy by 15%. Now that’s an innovation worth making a reality. But Abe needs to do more to change the business culture that is holding them back. Programs such as HSBC’s “Levers to Leadership” and Deloitte’s WIN are effective role models, showing how to spur the retention and acceleration of well-qualified female talent in Japan. Child care alone won’t solve the problem.