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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Girls' job stereotypes persist in face of continuing 'concrete ceiling'


Staff writer
This story is part of a package on women in Japan. The introduction is here.



Thirty years after the women's rights movement reached Japan, the nation's teenage girls might by now be expected to be besieging bastions of male dominance in their fight for an equal slice of the employment pie. But when high-school students were surveyed last year about the jobs they wanted after graduation, their answers corresponded closely to traditional gender stereotypes.

Among girls, the first choice, at 10.8 percent, was daycare provider/nursery-school teacher, followed by nurse (8%), teacher (5.8%), chef/pastry baker (4.8%), civil servant (4.6%), dog groomer (3.9%), beautician (3.5%), office worker (3.4%), hair stylist/makeup artist (3%) and pharmacist (3%).

Conspicuously absent from these young women's top 10 were aspirations toward such high-status careers as technician/researcher, doctor/dentist/veterinarian, or company worker -- which placed at second, fifth and 10th for boys, respectively.

So why, in a country with excellent educational opportunities for both sexes, are there still such gender discrepancies in career goals?

The answer might discourage any high-school girl from aiming too high: It is, simply, that Japan's employment playing field remains dauntingly uneven.

"For a young woman setting out to make a living, rather than angling to be a doctor or a lawyer, it's easier to go for nurse or teacher. They face less gender discrimination in those fields," said Takao Watanabe, secretary general of the All-Japan Federation of High-School Parent-Teacher Associations, which conducted the survey of 2,478 young people and their parents together with job-placement company Recruit.

Notably, the study found that even the children's parents don't appear to be very interested in changing Japan's male-dominated status quo.

Asked what jobs they wanted their children to pursue, parents who cared either way -- 68 percent said they would leave it to their children to decide -- answered "civil servant" as their top choice for both boys and girls. Yet in practice, parents were more than 10 percent likelier to steer a son into a plush government job than a daughter.

Meanwhile, while technician/researcher was the parents' second choice for sons, that career preference was not among their top 10 choices for daughters. They were also more than twice as likely to want their sons to become doctors or company employees than their daughters.

Attribute that to tradition.

"In the old days men went out and worked and women raised the family," said Ryoko, a 17-year-old high-school student in Kanagawa Prefecture, outside Tokyo. But that was then; this is now. Added Ryoko: "I'd like the women of today to go out and compete with guys to become lawyers and what have you."

Luckily for young women like her, new opportunities are appearing on the horizon. Cosmetics giant Shiseido Co., for example, is moving aggressively toward creating a working environment as favorable for women as for men. The Tokyo-based company's mostly female staff are now granted three years' maternity leave (compared to the maximum 18 months guaranteed by law), and mothers can shorten their work shift by up to 2 hours a day until their child enters elementary school. The company also plans to encourage male employees with families to be active partners at home.

"Because of this, almost no women have quit directly as a result of childbirth or child rearing," Shiseido states on its Web site. Little surprise, then, that female college students polled last year by the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper named Shiseido as their favorite employer of choice among target companies.

Such changes are making Naoko Ishihara, a women's-employment researcher at Recruit's Works Institute, cautiously optimistic. She said that the trend is growing, with several other major companies -- including beverage-maker Suntory Ltd., travel agency JTB Corp. and educational-services provider Benesse Corp. -- taking steps in the same direction.

Those inroads, she added, are encouraged by the Next Generation Nurturing Support Measures Promotion Law, enacted last year, that requires companies to take active steps to create women-friendly working environments.

But young, female job hunters probably shouldn't jump for joy just yet.

"There remains little momentum toward making women managers, general managers or directors," Ishihara said. "The ceiling here in Japan isn't made of glass -- it's made of concrete."

For other stories in our package on women in Japan, please click the following links:

Women's voices

Pointers to progress and inertia

Times of change



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