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Friday, Dec. 23, 2011

Gender gap shows scant improvement

WEF exec says more women in workforce will offset aging society

Staff writer

The World Economic Forum's annual gender equality report may have come as quite a shock to many Japanese.

News photo
Closing the gap: Saadia Zahidi, head of the women leaders and gender parity program at the World Economic Forum, is interviewed recently in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Despite being the third-largest economy in the world, Japan was ranked a disappointing 98th out of the 135 countries covered by the WEF's Global Gender Gap Report 2011 that came out in November.

"Among the OECD countries, Japan is at the lower end of the ranking, just ahead of Korea and Turkey," Saadia Zahidi, senior director of the WEF and head of the forum's women leaders and gender parity program, said during a visit to Tokyo late last month. "But Japan has improved. . . . So change is possible and the change is happening. The issue is how fast it can change."

The Geneva-based WEF hosts the famous meeting of top political, business and academic leaders in Davos, Switzerland, every year to discuss global issues ranging from economics to the environment to politics.

The gender equality index, which the forum started in 2006, evaluates each country by giving scores for women's economic participation and opportunity, education attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment and ranks the countries accordingly.

Of the 14 variables used to construct the index, 13 are from such publicly available sources as the International Labor Organization, the World Bank and the World Health Organization. One variable is based on data from the WEF's Executive Opinion Survey, which reflects views of business leaders in more than 130 countries.

In Asia, the Philippines scored an impressive eighth in the global ranking, with women's economic participation and political empowerment scoring higher than other nations in the region, including Japan.

"In every income group — low income, lower middle income, upper middle income, high income, there are countries that do extremely well. So gender equality doesn't have to be something only rich countries can afford," Zahidi said in an interview with The Japan Times.

Over the past six years, about 85 percent of countries have narrowed their gender gap, and the world as a whole is doing pretty well in terms of health and education, she said. It has closed about 96 percent of the gap in health matters between men and women and almost 93 percent in attaining an education.

But when it comes to economic participation, only about 60 percent of the gap between men and women has been closed and only 20 percent improvement has been noted in the difference in political empowerment, Zahidi pointed out.

"The investments in health and education have been made, and yet those healthy and educated women aren't channeled into the economy or political decision-making in numbers equal to men. This is a global problem," said Zahidi, who is from Pakistan.

According to the Cabinet Office, female Japanese politicians only accounted for 11.3 percent of the Diet members as of 2010, which compares poorly with Sweden, where 45 percent of politicians at the national level are women, and Britain, whose percentage of women in Parliament is 22.0 percent.

The overall top four in the annual WEF report are all Nordic — Iceland at the helm, followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden.

Zahidi pointed out that these countries have made it possible for men and women to build a healthy work-life balance.

"All of them have made it a sort of fundamental right of parents to have the ability to take time off and keep their jobs, to have the ability to come back to work exactly at the same level without your career being destroyed, and to have publicly provided child care services for every child."

She added that the top nations have implemented these three principles for men as well as women, and have sent a strong message that a proper work-life balance is important for everyone.

Zahidi, who held a series of meetings with government officials and female leaders while in Tokyo, said Japan has shown almost no change in political empowerment over the years, while it has made a little progress in economic participation.

She said that because Japan is a high-income country, with basic investment in health and education having already been made years ago, it shouldn't be difficult to move onto the next step, which is getting women into the workforce and into leadership levels.

Zahidi also said that narrowing the gender gap will eventually be the key to solving various problems associated with the graying of society.

The added burdens of supporting an aged population are approaching fast for Japan. Other countries facing this problem include Switzerland, Germany, Britain, the United States, Greece, Spain and France, which, according to the WEF, will also have high old-age dependency ratios by 2013.

The old-age dependency ratio is the number of elderly people compared with the size of the working-age population, which is between age 15 and 64.

The forum has done studies on these countries and classified them according to how well they're prepared for the coming problems, depending on how well they are using their female labor forces.

"It is not just because these women will become old in the future, but also because these women are the ones who have to basically be part of the workforce in order to offset some of the old-age dependency," Zahidi said.

Among these countries, Japan has the highest dependency rate, at 50 percent, she said.

"But that's assuming women are working. If women are not working, the number is even higher. It's close to 70 percent instead of 50 percent," she said, adding that Japan, South Korea and Italy are countries that are not well prepared for the future aging population because women's economic participation is not high compared with countries like Sweden, Norway and Germany.

"Engaging more women in the workforce can also be a solution to aging population," Zahidi said.

To help Japan speed up the process, the WEF is planning to draw more male Japanese business leaders into the forum's discussion group on gender parity at the next Davos forum in January.

Zahidi said business leaders such as Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. President Yasuchika Hasegawa and Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn are expected in Davos, so she hopes to bring them into the discussion on gender equality.

"If there is an interest, we could potentially create a Japanese gender parity group in the future," she said.

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