Japan, one of the most industrialized nations on earth with the third largest economy in the world, ranks 105th of 136 countries in gender equality. Though many people in the developed world assume that nations with economic strength and geopolitical power automatically have a positive human rights record, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report places Japan just behind Cambodia for gender equality in 2013.

Not only is Japan’s gender inequality abysmal, it’s only worsened in recent years. According to the Gender Gap Index, Japan has slid from 94th place in 2010 to 98th in 2011, to 101st in 2012. Inequality within the political sphere is even more grim. With its mere eight female parliamentarians, Japan ranks 120th of 136 countries in terms of women in parliament.

In the business sphere, a report by the OECD found that the median salary of a working Japanese mother is 61 percent lower than that of a man in an equivalent situation. By comparison, among the 30 nations that provided similar data, the average discrepancy was 22 percent. Further, women comprise only 2 percent of business directors.

What accounts for such disparity? Japan’s gender inequality is primarily driven by economic factors. In terms of educational attainment, men and women are fairly even. However, the structural realities of the work force reduce women’s earning potential and drive women away from jobs.

First, Japanese companies are hugely disinclined to hire women who leave the work force for extended periods of time to care for their children. Thus, few Japanese mothers are able to rejoin the workforce with full-time work, and large numbers of women are left disenfranchised. The part time work that some mothers are able to find to rejoin the workforce come with low wages. The negative perception of alternative child care arrangements further drives this phenomenon. Japanese women who utilize child care services are looked down upon, and thus mothers leaving the workforce is incentivized.

Long business hours in Japan also exacerbate the issue. Both male and female workers are expected to work late–often remaining at their desks until 10pm–therefore, child care becomes a real issue. Because mothers are generally only able to find lower paid, part-time work, it makes more economic sense for the woman to stay home.

Japan’s legal system in part accounts for gender inequality as well. Gender discrimination laws have a number of gaps and are difficult to enforce. Further, as Yoshiyuki Takeuchi, professor of economics at the University of Osaka, explains “tax, pension, social security, and health insurance are based on the model of a four-person family with a working father and a stay-at-home mother.”

Some financial strategists have suggested that Japan could create eight million jobs by implementing measures that would move the country toward gender equality. With one of the lowest birth rates in the world and an aging population contributing to an ever-shrinking work force, Japan faces increasingly serious economic stagnation.

Thus, not only would boosting gender equality protect the rights of half of its citizens, it would also bring about tangible economic returns at a time when Japan needs it the most.

– Kelley Calkins

Sources: Emory Journal of International Affairs, World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2013, Inter Press Service
Photo: The Telegraph