Working conditions for women

Although the Japanese Constitution prohibits discrimination due to sex, the ban is no more effective than it is in the U.S. Women still are discriminated against in the workplace. My review of one major work on the subject is here.

Originally there was the Equal Employment Opportunity Law for Men and Women (April, 1986), but this was revised in 1997 and then implemented in 1999 to ban gender-based discrimination in job recruitment, employment, allocation of specific posts and promotions and to ban sexual harassment.

What is prohibited theoretically does not, of course, mean it is always prohibited in practice as the book on Office Ladies shows. There is still a serious wage difference between women and men which is due mainly to the fact that women are not promoted anywhere near as often as men so they do not tend to get into the higher-paying jobs. This type of gender discrimination can begun even when the woman just enters the company as some women are not given the same type of training as the men, making their tasks even more difficult.

There is even a difference in the way U.S. firms and Japanese firms hire their workers. In the U.S., a worker is hired for a specific position (generally); in Japan, the person is hired for the company and after hiring is assigned to a specific job. This recruitment procedure opens itself to discrimination rather easily.

From the book Women and Japanese Management: Discrimination and Reform by Alice C.L. Lam, 1992:

"The Ministry of Labor survey shows that among those firms which recruited high school leavers (graduates), 62 per cent recruited both men and women and 22 per cent recruited men only. The picture was worse in the case of university graduates with 73 per cent of the firms limiting their recruitment to male graduates and only 26 per cent recruiting both male and female graduates. The reasons given by the companies for not recruiting female graduates were that ‘female high school leavers and junior college graduates were sufficiently well qualified for the jobs (55 per cent), ‘jobs for university graduates were limited to men only' (25 per cent) and that ‘female university graduates quit too soon' (16 per cent). ...Among the firms surveyed, 25 per cent replied that they set different hiring conditions for male and female high school leavers and 38 per cent of the firms set different hiring conditions for male and female university graduates."


"The survey shows that 83 per cent of the firms had jobs to which they did not assign women. The reasons given for not assigning women were:'requirement of physical strength' (51 per cent), ‘requirement of high qualifications' (36 per cent), ‘frequent assignment outside the office' (27 per cent) and ‘need to make external contacts' (23 per cent.)"

Thus, the odds are stacked against women being hired for good positions. The situation is made worse, though, by the restrictions on promotions.

From the same book:

"45 per cent of the firms replied that they did not offer women any chance for promotion to supervisory positions. Among those firms which offered women some promotion opportunities, 36 per cent limited promotion up to the level of first line supervisor, 25 per cent limited to sub-section chief, and only 14 per cent offered women promotion up the level of section chief."

So, once hired, the odds are very much against a woman being promoted. The discrimination continues right on up to retirement, where in 2% of the companies women could be forced to retired due to marriage, pregnancy or childbirth. the 2% figure is probably deceptively low, though.

Some of the tendency to deny women promotion is based on their "immobility;", that is, women are considered to be less mobile then men because they will have a home and children to take care of (or a home and older parents, etc.). There is also the issue of the "required" socializing that company employees will practice.

The workers will not only put in longer hours at the job than their U.S. counterparts, but after work they are expected to socialize with other workers, including going out and drinking and other extra-curricular activities. These all take up a lot of time (salarymen often come home very late from work and have little interaction with their own children), and women are seen as having less time to do such activities since they have to take care of the home.

Even during the actual period of employment there will be additional discrimination in relationship to training. Although Japanese companies invest much more heavily in the training of their workers than do U.S. companies, many companies will consider the training of women to be a "risky" undertaking because of a higher turn-over rate for women employees.

Thus, for women in Japan, getting hired, properly trained and promoted is much less likely then for males. Forms of passive resistance, such as those undertaken by the office ladies, is about their only avenue of protest open. There is a little progress being made on all the fronts, but it's a very slow progress.

Even after-work socializing is more difficult for women since some will be married with children and have responsibilities at home to attend to, prohibiting them from going out drinking with potential customers at night.

Terms have even been devised for the types of women workers. The ippan shoku are considered to be the miscellaneous workers and/or office ladies, and the sogo shoku are the career employees. From the book Japan in the 21st Century: Environment, Economy, and society by Pradyumna P. Karan, 2005:

"The miscellaneous workers, still legion in every Japanese ministry and large company despite a ten-year recession, are typically women in their twenties who, dressed in company uniforms or in smart clothing of their own, smilingly direct visitors to their appointments and serve tea to guests. Some of them may be involved in clerical work, sales work, or accounting work, but what they generally do not is rise above the lowly status and enter career tracks largely reserved for men. For women who choose to remain in the workplace, the challenge to be respected on the basis of their competence instead of being valued primarily for their ability to embellish their surroundings remains almost as great now as it was earlier."

The book notes that, in 1998, only 1.2 percent of corporate department heads in Japan were women, and that women only earned 64 percent as much as men among salaried workers, and even in part-time employment they only earn 51 percent as much as men. Women have only 1 in 25 management positions in big companies, although this is up from 1 in 40 in 1984.

Office Ladies and Resistance

As the book on office ladies noted, women can have positions of great power in the office simply by whether or not they perform their jobs well and willingly, or poorly and in a grudging manner (or perhaps even not at all.)This puts the men in the position of needing to curry favor with the women and this strengthens the women's position in the office.

The men will sometimes give the office ladies gifts, take them to dinner, flatter them, whatever it takes to get them to be willing to do their jobs for him since the male in authority is judged to a great degree by how well he "controls" the office ladies under him.

Office ladies who take a dislike to their male "superior" can undertake passive resistance measures such as:

1. Not taking the initiative on something. If a women is working on a document and she likes her office boss, she will usually spell check the document and see if there are any parts that are obscure or just don't make any sense. She can point these out to her boss and together they can produce a much better document. If she dislikes her boss, though, she will do the document as is without checking for spelling or anything else which will make the male boss look bad when the document gets to whoever it's going to.

2. They can decline to do extra work. If a male boss would need some extra copies of something run, for example, he can ask the women to do them and she can take the documents and not do them. When he asks her about them she might say to him that she simply has not had the time to copy them.

3. The office ladies might just not do anything their boss wants them to. If a woman has several different assignments to do, for example, she will prioritize them. Those assignments given to her by a boss that she likes will get the top priority; assignments given to her by a boss she does not like will go to the bottom of the heap and might not get done at all, leaving it to the boss-not-in-favor to do himself.

4.The ultimate is sosukan, or total neglect. This is the situation where the women basically shun the manager they don't like. They will not look at him, will take to him only when absolutely necessary and then only with the minimum of words and they will engage in other activities which, essentially, set the manager alone. This is seen by that manager's superiors, of course, and he then gets the reputation of being a man that cannot "control" the office workers.

There is actually an objective, mathematical way of measuring a manager's popularity with his female office workers. On Valentine's Day, office ladies will give chocolates to managers they like. Managers they like will have their desks covered with gifts of chocolate; managers they don't like will have desks as sparse as the desert sands. This is quite noticeable to the other managers and superiors, of course. (It's sort of like it was in some elementary schools when Valentines Day came around and kids gave each other valentines and there was always at least one person that just never seemed to get any at all.)

The end effect is that the office ladies can actually have a great degree of power within the confines of the office even if they have little chance of being promoted out of it. Still, that is not a very satisfactory resolution of the problem of discrimination against female employees.

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