Getting more women into the workforce: Lessons from Japanese Womenomics

This article is part of the series “Achieving gender goals: Inspiration from around the world”

At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos 2019, Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe in his special address noted that “We have responded by pushing hard for “womenomics,” encouraging more, and then still more women to work, while lessening the burden women shoulder. As a result, we now have 2 million more, repeat, two million more, women employed. The rate of female labor participation has hit 67 per cent, an all-time high for Japan, and higher than, say, in the U.S.”

So, What exactly is “Womenomics” ?

Womenomics is a set of measures initiated in 2014 as part of incoming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic reforms package (Abenomics) to restart the Japan’s stagnating economy. The reform measures were aimed at persuading more Japanese women to join the workforce, to remain in the workforce after they have children, and to advance to higher positions. PM Abe marketed his “Creating a Society in which Women Shine” agenda in the hope of achieving the economic predictions that said that Japan’s GDP can grow by 13% if more women join the workforce.

There are several lessons that India can learn from Japan’s attempt to improve the economic participation of women.

To understand what we can learn from Womenomics, we first look at what the strategy entailed.WHY WOMENOMICS?

The idea was to change the economic status of women in Japan where the gender gap was most pronounced among all rich countries. Only 63% of women in Japan participated in the labor force, compared to 85% of men, one of the lowest rates for women among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Around 70% women exited the workforce after having children. There was also a sizeable pay gap between men and women, and a poor representation of women in high-level positions. Women occupied 9% of legislator, senior official, and manager positions in Japan,

Japan also had demographic challenges, like low birth rate, strict immigration practices, and a shrinking and rapidly aging population. Demographic surveys suggested that Japan’s population is falling in part because Japanese women are choosing to postpone or forgo marriage altogether. Economists argued that greater participation of women in the workforce could actually increase fertility rates in Japan


The strategy to address these problems included several policy proposals and initiatives, such as:

Establishing numerical targets – The administration pledged to increase the workforce participation of women in the 25-44 age group to 73% by 2020, up from 68% in 2012; and to increase the percentage of women in leadership positions from 10% to 30% by 2020.

Increasing the availability of daycare and after-school care – More than 20 lakh children were enrolled in childcare centers in Japan but more than 23,000 were on waiting lists. The government pledged a “zero childcare waiting-list project,” by increasing childcare capacity by 400,000 children by 2017. In order to reach this goal, the government proposed opening more childcare centers, hiring new childcare workers; subsidizing small-scale childcare businesses and supporting on-site childcare centers on business premises.

Encouraging the private sector to promote more women –

  • Requesting that companies appoint at least one female executive officer.
  • Subsidies up to 300,000 Yen for companies that promote women to senior managerial positions. Under this program, companies who would hire women for positions would receive Encouraging companies to voluntarily disclose information concerning the promotion of women to executive and management positions. Listed companies were required to disclose the number of women in executive positions in their financial reports.
  • New regulations reward companies that have exclusive plans for women, offering them preferential treatment when bidding for public tenders.

Recruiting and promoting women in government- The government promoted female public officials to top-ranking national positions. In 2013, a woman was appointed to a Cabinet position for he 1st time in 16 years. For the first time ever, a woman was appointed as Executive Secretary to the Prime Minister.

Expanding child care leave benefits – government increased payment to new parents from 50% to 67% of their salary during the first six months of parental leave (that lasts 12 months). The government also set a goal to increase the proportion of fathers taking paternity leave from 2.6% in 2011 to 13% by 2020.

Reviewing the tax and social security system – the measures mandated a modification to Japan’s current tax and social security system that allows the head of a household (usually the husband) to claim a dependent exemption for a spouse (usually the wife) as long as the spouse’s income does not exceed 1.03 million Yen (about $10,300).16 Additionally, if the spouse’s income stays below 1.3 million Yen (about $13,000), the spouse also can claim a national pension without paying any premiums.

Allow foreign housekeepers in special economic zones – Japan’s strict immigration policies currently only allow foreign diplomats to employ foreign housekeepers. The government plans to allow more foreign housekeepers in Japan’s special economic zones, which include Tokyo and Osaka among other areas, to help families balance careers and family.


Since Abe’s government came into power in 2012, more than 1 million women have re-entered the workforce and Japanese female labour participation has risen sharply to a record high of 66 percent. Unemployment for women dropped to 3.5 percent in 2014, and labour participation rate is at the highest that it has ever been in the past 15 years or so.


Although the number of working women increased, but many of these women are in non-regular/ part-time employment, with women accounting for around 57 percent of all temporary staff. Statistics show that these women were employed part-time, on a contract base or as haken (temp) workers, which equates to low pay, little responsibility and few chances to advance their careers.

The proportion of females in managerial positions has only barely improved, from 10 percent in 2005 to 13 percent in 2016. The target for women to occupy 30 per cent of all management positions by 2020 had to be revised to 7 percent for national civil servants and 15 percent for local public officials and private corporations.

In its first year, the scheme offering cash to small companies promoting women to executive roles had just one application, although almost all companies with at least 301 employees had complied with a law ordering them to produce a plan on how to promote women (FT)

Not much has changed in terms of workplace culture, workplace culture known for long hours at work, followed by late nights drinking alcohol with colleagues to encourage office cohesion.

Abe’s current cabinet is itself an illustration of the drastic gender gap – there are only two women ministers out of 24. World Bank ranks Japan as one of the worst among wealthy countries regarding the number of female legislative representatives, with only 9.3 percent of parliamentary seats currently held by women. The country’s rankings in the Global Gender Gap are also continuing to drop, down three spots down since last year to 114th out of 144 countries in 2017 – the worst among the G7 nations.


  • Firstly, the design of the Womenomics package shows that the Government had made a thorough assessment of the problems and challenges impeding women’s advancement and then they created a multi-pronged strategy to address many barriers at the same time. The measures also showcase that a high level visible commitment from government can initiate a movement and trigger off conscious efforts to understand that need for and ways to achieve gender parity.
  • The slow progress of achieving gender goals shows that the private sector should not merely be “encouraged” but some penalties for non-compliance are also needed. Therefore, beyond just imposing “requirements”, policy legislations and economic sanctions would be more effective.
  • Merely quantitative achievements do not get results, qualitative progress is needed in terms of creating more full-time jobs with defined career paths rather than mostly part-time or work from home jobs. This will be more effective in creating more women in leadership positions.
  • The government has to also make the environment for working women more conducive and incentivised by simultaneously look at promoting usage and quality of daycares, implementing tax policies and subsidies incentives and promoting usage of other as career enablers.
  • Quantitative measurement is very necessary to generate reliable data from companies related to female hiring and promotion practice as well as to create transparency. If encouraged to do so, businesses are willing to share their data, plans and best practices.
  • Increasing representation of women in politics and in the Government is a step that cannot be skipped if gender goals have to be achieved. Many countries (like UK) that improved on the WEF’s Gender Parity ranking did so mainly because the number of female representatives in Parliament increased, while Japan failed to improve its rank because of low participation of women in its political setup.