WASHINGTON – One of the key promises of “Abenomics”, the far-reaching economic reforms package put forth by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was to shake up Japan, so that it would shed its time-honored but inefficient traditions, and become a more dynamic society. An important element of the “Abenomics” plan was to incentivize a much stronger participation of women in the Japanese work force.
Cash rewards for companies that promote women
To this end, a year ago the government launched a scheme that offers cash payments to small firms that would promote women to management positions. Well, a year after its launch, the program received just one applications.
Yes, just one.
Government officials argue that may be the scheme was presented in difficult to understand technical language, and this is why it has been ignored by small firms managers.
Women at the top still not welcome
May be. But most likely the truth is that the Japanese business world is still not ready for a new era in which a large number of women are in executive positions dealing with men as peers. And so here we see the negative effects of outmoded but entrenched cultural prejudice on economic dynamism and eventually improved performance.
Rich but stagnating society
By most accounts Japan is still a very rich society. (The number three economy in the world, after the US and China). But it has been stagnating for decades. Despite world leadership positions in some key tech sectors, Japan is stuck. Deflation, low productivity and an astounding public debt, now above 240% of GDP, prevent growth. Add to this depressing mix a (terminal?) fertility collapse that combined with long living seniors is slowly transforming Japan into a large geriatric ward.
Strengthen the economy?
For sure, adding the contribution of women to the national economy would be beneficial, especially if combined with generous child care assistance programs that would help working women who want to have a career and a family.
But this is not happening. Notwithstanding some progress, according to a recent FT report, Japan has one of the lowest ratios of women in executive positions among all OECD countries.
With good intentions, Prime Minister Abe wanted to pull down these gender barriers. Hence the government scheme that would reward companies that promote women, or train them for management positions.
But there are no takers.
The government indicated that this will change now that the application procedures for the cash bonuses have been simplified.
Entrenched culture prevents growth
I would not be too sure of that. The sad truth is that Abenomics failed. The currency has been devalued. Therefore, some exporters are doing a lot better. But overall debt is still unsustainable.
Much worse, the old habits and traditions that now make Japan brittle and structurally inefficient still prevail. The inability to create new career paths for professional women is just one illustration of a change averse, sclerotic society.