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Japan's gender inequity could affect GDP by 15%

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In the year since Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, the nation’s many deficits have been cast in stark relief.

The budget deficit is widening as the cost of rebuilding the northeast mounts. The growth shortfall is worrying politicians more than ever and making it hard for Yoshihiko Noda, the sixth prime minister in five years, to keep his job. Deflation is a chronic downer. News that the trade gap disappeared last month was, for now at least, a rare hint that better days may lie ahead.

Oddly, Japan’s most obvious shortcoming is being ignored more now than before the March 11, 2011, disaster: women.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development routinely urges Japan to provide women with more opportunities to boost growth. In 2010, the country ranked a dismal 94th in a World Economic Forum report on the gap between men and women. By the end of 2011, Japan had slid to 98th place, trailing China, Tajikistan and Zimbabwe.

Yukako Uchinaga personifies Japan’s empowerment deficit -- and what to do about it -- as well as anyone. The chief executive officer of Berlitz Corp. recalls a time when she hid in the women’s room. It was back in the 1970s when she worked as a systems engineer at International Business Machines Corp. At 8 p.m., an inspector would search the office to make sure all women had gone home. Once the checks were done, Uchinaga would leave the bathroom stall and return to work.

Running freely

“My boss used to say, ‘I don’t want to be put in jail,”’ Uchinaga told Bloomberg News recently. “I complained it was unfair, like being in a 100-meter race with my hands and feet tied while all my male colleagues ran freely.”

That law is no longer on the books, and in the decades that followed, discrimination was formally banned. Yet, in 2012, women occupy just one in 70 management jobs at Japanese companies. Not one Nikkei 225 Stock Average company is run by a woman. Noda’s Cabinet contains just one woman: Health Minister Yoko Komiyama.

The numbers have long spoken for themselves. Kathy Matsui, a Tokyo-based strategist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE:GS), estimates that if Japan’s female employment rate matched that of males -- one of the highest anywhere at about 80 percent -- gross domestic product would get a boost of as much as 15 percent. For a deflation-plagued economy that is contracting at a rate of 0.6 percent, even a small portion of that jolt would be a godsend.

Change catalyst?

Why Japan’s leaders would rather limp than charge ahead in the age of China is beyond me. What would it take to change gender attitudes? I felt certain that last year’s disaster that killed almost 20,000 people would be the turning point. A shrinking and rapidly aging society suspicious of mass immigration must recognize its hidden strengths.

Japan has two. One is millions of highly skilled retirees whose talents could be tapped. The other is a vast and educated female work force. Don’t count on the gray-haired men who run Japan paying much mind to the latter.

For all its talk of fresh thinking and empowering households, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan has done nothing to realize that goal. A June 2011 Cabinet paper urging Japan to raise the proportion of women in leadership to 30 percent by 2020 was more lip service than substance.

Women power

The answer is for women to demand their due. Japan’s history is replete with flashes of feminist energy, but few caught on in a cohesive, sustained and formidable way. A little Gloria Steinem-style agitation, or even taking a page from “Lysistrata,” might go a long way in a nation badly in need of an economic shakeup. After all, those in power don’t tend to yield it easily, least of all Japan’s old-boys club.

That gets us back to Uchinaga, 65, who became the first female board member at IBM Japan in 1995. Today, she is chairman of the Japan Women’s Innovative Network, a nonprofit group that researches and advises on diversity. It is helping members like Nissan Motor Co. to advance women’s roles.

Japan needs more female success stories like Uchinaga to step forward and draw attention to this most correctable of problems. Count longtime gender-equality activist Kimie Iwata, 64, among them. The vice president at Shiseido Co., Japan’s top cosmetics maker, is championing her own effort to tap the underutilized female masses. Who knows, maybe Japan needs a female prime minister. It couldn’t hurt.

Sexism exacerbates Japan’s falling birthrate dilemma. Women hoping for better opportunities are delaying childbirth. More enlightened policies to empower women and help them manage work and family would serve the third-largest economy well. It wouldn’t just conjure up more growth, but babies, too.

Instead, all too many university graduates remain relegated to the dead-end role of “office lady,” serving tea when they could be offering fresh ideas and drafting business proposals. That’s no way to run a democracy, and women need to make their disenchantment with Japan’s gender inequality heard.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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