Conference report offers 10 actions Japan can take to address gender inequality

womenomics conference report headline
Rod Searcey

The Japan Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC), in collaboration with the United States-Japan Foundation and Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, has published a report with findings from the inaugural conference, Womenomics, the Workplace, and Women, held in November 2016.

The two-day conference, which gathered 20 speakers and a substantial audience at Stanford, initiated dialogue about women’s leadership and work-life balance in Japan and the United States and encouraged the formation of a cross-sector network of experts seeking to build pathways to advance opportunity for women in both countries.

“The conference provided a unique opportunity for a diverse group of individuals to come together and explore how to tackle challenges that women continue to face on both sides of the Pacific,” said Mariko Yoshihara Yang, a visiting scholar and Japan Program Fellow at Shorenstein APARC, who organized the conference. “I believe the knowledge, perspectives and networks shared will go far beyond the two days we convened at Stanford, and make a valuable contribution to the movement to achieve gender equality and revitalize the Japanese economy.”

The conference report includes a set of actions that Japanese and American policy researchers and practitioners can pursue to promote women's leadership. A statement with the actions is arranged by organization type and published directly below.

Download the statement and full report.

Ten Actions Japan can take to Promote Women’s Leadership

Authors: Shelley Correll, Diane Flynn, Ari Horie, Atsuko Horie, Takeo Hoshi, Rie Kijima, Chiyo Kobayashi, Sachiko Kuno, Mitsue Kurihara, Kenji Kushida, Yoky Matsuoka, Emily Murase, Nobuko Nagase, Akiko Naka, Mana Nakagawa, Yuko Osaki, Machiko Osawa, Myra Strober, Kenta Takamori, Kazuo Tase, Mariko Yoshihara Yang


The Japanese government should establish concrete measures to achieve targets stipulated in the Fourth Basic Plan for Gender Equality, which was approved by the Japanese Cabinet on December 25, 2015, and went into effect in April 2016. The following reforms will help promote this process and distribute benefits to all workers equally. A special emphasis was placed on ensuring versatility across many sectors.

1. Abolish the income tax deduction and social security premium exemption for dependent spouses and increase family care allowance. The spousal exemptions that allow income tax breaks and social security premiums discourage many married women from seeking full-time employment. The Japanese government has recently proposed to scale back the spousal tax break by raising the annual threshold from ¥1.03 to ¥1.5 million or less starting in 2018. However, this incremental measure will act only as a short-term solution. Japan needs a conclusive solution to best utilize women as the workforce. By completely eliminating the spousal exemption and providing family care allowance, more women will be incentivized to take on full-time and leadership positions in the workplace. Families with young children and aging parents will be compensated with family care allowance.

2. Expand the scope of corporate disclosure on gender equality and establish a “Women’s Empowerment Index.” The public database on gender equality, launched by the Cabinet Office in 2014 and administered by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare since 2016, remains limited in its scope and scale. The government should add more substantial measures in the rubric such as hours of overtime work and “re-entry/on-ramping” rate of women, and mandate the reporting requirement. Based on the expanded database, the government should calculate a Women’s Empowerment Index and issue certifications to people with high ratings. The index would be embedded in the parameters for stakeholder decision-making and provide financial incentives for corporations to sustain a more diverse work environment.

Large Corporations

To increase women’s participation in the workplace, companies need to eliminate gender-based stereotypes in hiring and promotion practices, encourage more women to pursue full-time positions, and support women who seek to re-enter the labor force after temporary leave. Large corporations in Japan can take the following actions to lead these changes:

3. Scrutinize the yardsticks used for recruitment and promotion, and eliminate evaluation criteria that systematically sorts out certain candidates. Companies need to provide training to mid-career managers and top leaders to address unconscious biases in the workplace. It is critical to ensure a level-playing field for women and men.

4. Introduce a legal ceiling and penalties for overtime work and lift compulsory job transfers that disrupt family life. This will help change the prevailing work culture of devotion and self-sacrifice. Companies should consider decentralizing personnel administration so local offices will more closely monitor individual needs and preferences of employees’ and reflect them into their career trajectories. Such reforms will encourage more women to apply for full-time employment and leadership opportunities while reducing premature resignations of women with families.

5. Create a mandate for departments to establish and provide clear job descriptions for each position to ensure consistency across departments. This would allow employees to better articulate their skill sets when seeking new job opportunities within organizations or when they re-enter the labor market after taking breaks in their careers. In the long term, this will help Japan develop a more robust external labor market that promotes mobility between organizations and across sectors, not just within companies.

6. Create clear evaluation criteria for women with specialized careers and raise their visibility within and outside the organization. Visibility of an employee’s technical skills is known to influence her or his prospect for advancement. When women propose ideas based on their specialization, they should employ “amplification” techniques, where they repeat each other’s ideas to increase their credibility during meetings and brainstorming sessions. Corporate leaders should also make a point of acknowledging their expertise and vouch for their competence. Large corporations should facilitate their promotion to manager and board member positions.


Although women are still underrepresented in entrepreneurial leadership positions, the gender gap is less severe in the startup sector than in large corporations. Thus, promotion of entrepreneurship in general will increase the chances for women’s empowerment and leadership.

7. Create platforms to catalyze startups led by women and raise the visibility of successful female entrepreneurs. There should be a platform where novice and experienced entrepreneurs can interact. Routine exchange among successful female founders and aspiring entrepreneurs will help build a community that catalyzes women-led startups as they try to turn ideas into full-time businesses. Similarly, there should be a platform where female leaders in small startups and large corporations meet regularly to provide mutual mentorship. Corporate executives could learn the latest business trends while female entrepreneurs expand their professional networks.

8. Expand policies to encourage a culture of entrepreneurship with specific incentives for female entrepreneurs. The government should consider increasing the public funding for startups led by women and provide robust legal support for female entrepreneurs. Increased assistance to incubators and accelerators, specializing in supporting female founders, would also contribute to women’s empowerment.

Educational Institutions

Educational institutions play a key role in creating knowledge to ensure gender equality, promoting awareness and nurturing a bias-free mindset among young people. Furthermore, women’s advancement in education generally yields greater participation in the economy and society. Recent advancements have created a reversal among the OECD countries. More than half of all students graduating from secondary and higher education are female; however, Japan is still behind. The following two initiatives will help close the gap:

9. Strengthen gender equality promotion office at educational institutions. This includes hiring a dedicated diversity officer, who will help universities conduct gender analyses of leadership posts and monitor women in academic leadership positions. Furthermore, universities should introduce family friendly policies to support young faculty members. When faculty members take parental leave, universities should provide funding for temporary staff to lay the groundwork for their return. In addition, academic conferences held at universities should provide childcare services for out-of-town participants.

10. Create continuing education centers to offer certificate programs to provide skills and training for women and men looking to re-enter the workforce. The programs could provide specialized knowledge as well as skill development including self-assessment, counseling, resume-building, practice interviewing, and unconscious bias training. This will allow workers access to education and support throughout their onboarding process and transition into the workplace. These centers should also provide career services to match qualified workers with potential employers.