TOKYO – When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the United Nations General Assembly last week, he emphasized his determination to build a society in which women shine. Indeed, creating opportunities for women in the workforce is an essential pillar of the government’s reform program, so-called “Abenomics.”
Abe is clearly on the right track. According to an analysis by researchers at Goldman Sachs, closing the gender gap could boost GDP by 9% in the United States and nearly 13% in Japan. During his stay in New York, Abe also discussed “womenomics” with Hillary Clinton, who had made empowering women in the economy a key policy goal during her tenure as US Secretary of State.
Abe, strange to say, is the first Japanese leader to grasp that the underutilization of women’s skills has been holding back Japan’s economy. Japan ranked 105th out of 136 countries in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2013,” down from 101st place in 2012.
The problem begins in Abe’s own domain – politics. In his cabinet reshuffle earlier this month, five female ministers were appointed, but in the face of strong opposition from male MPs. More important, the appointments amounted to painting over the cracks: Only 39 of the 480 members of the Japanese Diet’s lower house, or 7.9%, are women. The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Japan 158th out of 189 countries in terms of its ratio of female MPs.