Welcome to Pacific Exchanges, a podcast from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. I’m Cindy Li.
And I’m Sean Creehan. We’re analysts in the country analysis unit, and our job is to monitor financial and economic developments in Asia. Today, we continue our series Rethinking Asia, as we consider noteworthy and unusual trends in Asian finance and economics. We sat down with Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs. Kathy has lived and worked in Japan for three decades. She’s most famous for helping to focus the country on the importance of increasing the role of women in the workforce, a concept she refers to as “womenomics.”
Yes, and her work has been quite influential, with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe incorporating her work on female workforce participation into his own reform agenda program starting in 2012.
Yeah and Kathy gets into a number of reasons behind the historical underrepresentation of women in Japan’s workforce, why that was bad for the economy, and how things have been changing for the better in recent years. And she also makes some provocative suggestions for future policy changes and gives some examples of successes in other countries that can serve as a model for places like Japan or even the United States.
Ok, let’s get to our conversation!
Thanks for joining us, Kathy. You have written prominently on the importance of female workforce participation in economic growth. Could you talk about the origins for your research? How you got interested in the subject and why it’s so important.
Sure. I first broached this topic of, I call it womenomics or women in economics, with a report I published back in 1999, so almost two decades ago, largely as a result of my own personal experience at the time, which was shaped by the fact that after having given birth to my first child, I realized that I was one of the few Japanese women, at least in my circles, that returned to work full-time. And given my role, which is to serve as a portfolio strategist, talking at length about the macro challenges facing Japan and Japan’s corporate sector, the issue of demographics was always front and center. So, I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. Why is it that many of my talented Japanese female friends, who were also mothers, not returning to work in the same way that I experienced or I had observed back in my home country of the United States?” And so it sort of dawned on me that perhaps this was a research topic that was worth exploring further.
When I started to look at some of the statistics, I was quite shocked to find at that time over 60% of Japanese mothers quit working basically all together after giving birth to their first child, and that ratio at the time was roughly double that of the equivalent ratio, say, in the rest of the developed world, at least in the West, the United States and Europe.
And I felt that with my conversations over and over with many institutional investors around the world, I’ve always encountered the question, “Well, what is the point of investing in Japan’s economy, Japan’s stock market, given the very severe demographic headwinds that are painfully obvious to everybody?” And I thought, “Well, perhaps one of the solutions, or at least part of the solution, would be to try to find a way to encourage more women to go back to the workforce, stay in the workforce even after starting a family.” So, that’s really the backdrop to why I decided to start exploring this theme.
So, Kathy, you alluded to your own personal experience and your network of friends who were very talented and chose to leave the workforce after having a child. More broadly in terms of the statistics, our understanding is that Japan’s female population is generally amongst the most educated in the world, and yet a number of women choose to exit the workforce as you said. Could you talk about that particular challenge, and sort of the disconnect there, and what progress there’s been over the 20 years that you’ve been following this issue?
That is indeed true, that if you look at most measurements of levels of education, of skills attainment, Japanese women rank right up there, in fact, among the highest ranked in terms of skills around the world. And yet if we look at the presence of women in various fields in the Japanese workforce, if we look at the ratio of females in Japan working for example in the STEM arenas, it is extraordinarily low.
I think some of this has to do with factors driven by what I would call infrastructure or government regulations, meaning that for many women, and frankly for many of my friends, they had the desire to return to work after giving birth, yet it was impossible to do so given that there wasn’t sufficient daycare capacity to help support them in raising their children. From the employer’s perspective, there weren’t policies in place to really plan for women returning to work after giving birth. Again, given that it was a minority of women that were deciding to return to work, companies were a little bit at a loss as to how to manage women post-child birth and getting them back into that work stream and the career path alongside their male peers.
And I think a third factor has been, frankly, societal. If you look at surveys historically in this country of preferences, for instance, of Japanese men and their future spouses, do they desire to have a spouse who is a career woman who is fulfilling her own career aspirations, or do they desire a woman who opts to stay at home and raise the children? And for many years, not surprisingly, the surveys were showing overwhelming majority of these men preferring that their spouses stay at home and basically take care of the household.
So, there are a number of forces at work. You can’t point your finger at any one scapegoat, so to speak, as to why the big disconnect between the level of skill and education attainment and the absence, in many cases, of women in the workplace, but I think it’s a combination of government, private sector, and societal forces that have really led to this wide gap between these two issues.
The good news though is, I think given the fact that Japan is now faced with acute labor shortages which are very widespread as a function of the fact that Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the developed world. Japan is, we all know, one of the most rapidly aging populations with now over a quarter of the population already over the age of 65, and where we know that the society or the country is not very open to non-Japanese national workers, although changing a little bit at the margin, but still relative to other countries is still pretty strict on that front. That means we have an extraordinarily tight labor market, so tight that today, roughly speaking, there are 70% more jobs available than Japanese seeking work.
And so as a result of these shortages, frankly, employers have had no other option but to tap into the female talent that has not yet worked actively, and that is why we’re starting to see over the last five to six years a very large spike in female labor participation, albeit most of these women are working part-time jobs as opposed to full-time ones, but nevertheless a lot more women are entering the workforce, which is good to see.
Kathy, can you talk for a moment about female participation in the workforce elsewhere in the world? So, Japan’s female participation rate actually now exceeds the United States, if I’m correct. Most recent data in 2016 from the OECD suggests that Japan’s female participation rate is 76.3% versus 74.3% in the US. Have you looked at the issue in the US or elsewhere, for example, in Europe?
We have not looked at it in detail, but we have pointed it out in our own research that crossover, i.e., what you just described, which is the Japanese female participation rate, which was always below that of the United States, has in recent years crossed or exceeded that of the US. I’m not sure what it is in other western economies, say in Europe, but I believe that Japan is one of the few nations, at least in the developed world, where overall labor participation, which includes that of females, is actually on the rise. And in Japan, it’s in fact at a record level.
Frankly, it’s not just women, but because of the shortages of workers here, they’re also tapping into older workers. So, the typical retirement age is 60 to 65. You know the Japanese longevity is one of the longest in the world, so mid 80s on average for Japanese men and women, so that’s a very long period of time when these people are generally quite healthy even at the age of official retirement, so they’re tapping into that as well.
So, I think Japan right now is in a relatively unique situation relative to the United States and Europe, and again I think that is one of the big reasons that is driving the spike in Japan’s female participation rate in recent years. I will also add though that it’s not just the sheer supply/demand forces at work that have been resulting in Japan’s spike in female labor participation. I think we have to give the government some credit in so far as they have been making a very significant effort, for instance, to expand capacity in daycare, which again as I mentioned earlier is one of the reasons why a lot of mothers tend to drop out of the workplace, because caregiving is in very, very short supply. So, prefectures or states across the nation have essentially been in a race with one another to try to build extra capacity. And where the public sector cannot supply sufficient capacity, some of these states have actually tapped into the private sector and saying, “Look. We, the governments, don’t have enough funds to build this capacity. Can you, the private sector, actually chip in and contribute to this effort?” It’s been very encouraging to see the private sector get involved in helping to expand this capacity.
The other area that I think is quite important is, frankly speaking, a lot of the issues surrounding low female participation rates in the past, especially in the private sector, was due to the fact that nobody really knew what the numbers looked like. We all intuitively knew that the women were not working that much, but it was very hard at a company to company level to actually compare Company A to Company B in terms of, for example, what percentage of their managers are female? What percentage of the graduate intake is female? Etc. But a few years ago, the Japanese Cabinet Office, which is essentially the Prime Minister’s Office, set down a ruling that disclosures related to gender statistics like the ones I mentioned are now mandatory. You must now disclose some of these statistics in a public fashion.
It isn’t perfect yet, I admit, but we are moving towards greater transparency on gender disclosures, which means that young women in universities can, for example if they’re looking at let’s say the construction industry, they can look across the major construction firms, look at some of their statistics. There’s also a requirement, by the way, to disclose a gender target, and that can be whatever you want it to be, but if some companies have a more ambitious gender target, say to achieve a minimum number of female managers by a certain year, then that I think would be positive for that company from a recruiting perspective and a retention perspective. I think this transparency and disclosure requirement also did quite a lot to nudge and encourage a lot of private sector employers to start focusing a lot more on diversity in a way that they’d never really done before.
Kathy, you started off there by talking about the efforts to build capacity in terms of child care, to allow mothers or fathers who may be spending time taking care of their children to go back into the work force. And at the same time, you’re talking about the driver of work force scarcity, aging population, kind of lack of workers in general as pulling particularly female workers and the elderly back into the workforce. I’m wondering, the tension there, how is Japan going to be able to increase the capacity for childcare? Presumably, that involves more workers. It’s not just going to be robots. And so how is that challenge going to be resolved where you’re enabling people to enter the workforce in other jobs, but at the same time you’re also creating a demand for other jobs in terms of childcare? Is that something that the country is grappling with? Is that something that’s still sort of up for debate as to how to solve? Of course, immigration might be helpful, but that’s a very sensitive topic in Japan as well. I’m just wondering, how does the country think about that tension?
That is a clear tension that’s emerged, especially in recent years with more women deciding to work outside the home. One of the ways that the government has tried to rectify this dilemma is by saying, “Well, if we don’t have enough Japanese, for example, babysitters or caregivers, then in fact we may need to import them. Now they’re importantly not calling this immigration, implying that these people come and they stay. But essentially what they’re doing is they’re granting temporary work visas to non-Japanese nationals who have skills in caregiving, in child rearing, in nursing, etc., and albeit for only a limited number of people who have these qualifications from abroad. They’re allowing them to come in, in a much larger way than ever before.
Now again the base is very low, so I don’t want to exaggerate it, but the government has recognized that the supply of help and caregiving in this arena is extremely limited domestically, so there is no choice but to tap into that talent from overseas. So that is a very recent phenomenon, and again for obvious political considerations, like I said, they’re not calling this immigration reform, but they are granting temporary work visas to these workers.
In a similar fashion, they’re doing the same thing with construction, right? In what, two years’ time, Tokyo will be hosting the summer 2020 Olympics, and so there’s a lot of construction, for example, that needs to be done. And given the lack of enough Japanese construction workers, they’re also doing something similar with offering temporary work visas to non-Japanese construction workers as well. So part of that so called gap is being filled, indeed, with non-Japanese employees. But I think longer term there is actually a domestic solution.
What I mean by that is, and this is not necessarily something that the government has launched or embraced quite yet, but if you think about it, there are a lot of Japanese older parents, people who are retired. Yes, some of them want to go back and work for maybe their former companies and things like that, but there are lots of also experienced parents, and I would say especially older women who are very healthy, very fit, who even within their own immediate neighborhoods probably will find young families that are desperately seeking caregiving that is more local, that is more familiar. So almost like a kind of intergenerational source of support could actually be right out of these young families’ front doors, and if there could be some sort of licensing and training program that’s established whereby these older parents can be trained at a…I don’t know, maybe achieving some sort of national certification level to make the young families or young parents comfortable with tapping into this potential caregiving source, that might be a very large pool of talent that could be tapped into.
My point is, I think if we think a little bit more creatively about what’s available even within Japan’s borders, some of these, what we always talk about, acute shortages of support in caregiving…And let’s not forget, this is no longer just a childcare caregiving challenge. It’s increasingly becoming an elder care caregiving challenge as well. So I think all around the need for caregiving, to some degree at least, could be filled in locally, if, again, some creative programs are put in place.
Yes, it’s a challenge. It will continue to be an increasing challenge, but I think, again, when push comes to shove, there are some things that can be done, and the government has started to embark on some of them already.
I also wonder that the Japanese workplace is known for long hours at work. I wonder if you think more flexible work hours will be helpful for female participation?
Absolutely. And the government has already recognized this. Part of Prime Minister Abe’s so-called labor reform agenda that he’s been pursuing over the last couple of years has really honed in on this very topic of, frankly, more humane work styles and work practices. For instance, the government has essentially established quite draconian now limits on overtime working hours with the intent, of course, to minimize these stories of Japanese people essentially “working themselves to death” in quotation marks from excessive work. And so the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare has set down essentially a guideline that excess overtime cannot exceed 100 hours per month, which probably sounds an excessive amount already from a Western perspective, but in Japan that’s actually a pretty easy threshold to clear in many cases, so this new ruling is quite, frankly, a shock to many employers here that now have, not only to deal with the fact that the labor pool is shrinking and it’s tougher to retain their staff, but you’re no longer able to, quote, “squeeze out the maximum number of work hours” you used to with every single individual.
Again, it is draconian. You may think, “Why is the government having to meddle in this very top down, aggressive fashion?” But just, I think, because these long working hours practices was so ingrained in the Japanese corporate culture, the government felt that if it did not take a top down stance here that it would take forever for things really to change. I think that’s one thing that at least they’ve begun to make a move in that direction of flexibility.
I would say one other thing that perhaps is less well known outside Japan is I personally am encountering young Japanese men who are entering the work force, and when we have conversations with these young men, we are quite encouraged to find that these men are as interested in work/life balance issues as females are. And perhaps it’s a millennial thing. It may be a generational thing. I’m hearing the same thing from my colleagues and friends around the world, so perhaps it’s actually universal. That to me is actually quite encouraging insofar as young Japanese men are saying, “Hey. I don’t want to work the same way that my fathers and grandfathers did. I actually want to spend time with my children, my family. I don’t want to work a 24/7 life. I want to enjoy life.” And I think at the end of the day, it no longer becomes a struggle or challenge just for the minority, i.e., just for females, but as long as we have all of society working towards a more humane style of work, and work practices, and greater flexibility in all forms, I think that’s really ultimately going to move the agenda, which again I think makes me at least somewhat optimistic about the future.
I wonder about any effective potential gaps in gender pay. Is that a major issue in Japan? Does that in your mind discourage female participation in the work force? Are there efforts to react to that? Could you talk a little bit about that?
It is an issue. If you look at any measurements of gender pay comparisons across various developed countries, Japan usually comes out with one of the widest gaps. But remember, this is largely due to the fact that women account for roughly 70% of all part-time workers in this country, and part-time workers at their peak were about 40% of all employees in Japan. So the fact that on average a part-time employee makes half that of their full-time equivalents, it’s not at all surprising to see. If they just take a straight cut of men versus women, that Japanese women come out very short when it comes to gender pay comparisons. I think it is an issue, but I think more of an issue is, how do we get more Japanese women to work full-time as opposed to just part-time?
And like I said earlier, a lot of women decide to re-enter the workforce now after starting a family, but again in many cases, they are only opting for part-time jobs, or frankly those are the only jobs that employers are willing to give them. So, I think from both sides, from the women themselves, from the employer’s perspective, we need to work harder at managing career paths for these women, so that they can get back on the full-time career track, and then ultimately into leadership positions.
Kathy, on that point, our understanding is that there has been a long term, or at least there previously was, a tax incentive for some. Whether it’s a female in the household or a male in the household to work part-time, there was a tax deduction. How much of the bent towards part-time participation by women in the Japanese work force is a legacy of some of those policy choices?
That is true.
What you’re referring to is the tax code is frankly very antiquated and is essentially the same as it was post World War II. Post World War II, of course, the Japanese economy coming out of the war was growing very rapidly during the 1960s and ’70s, and most families were able to survive back then on single incomes, usually by the head of house, which was usually the men. And if you look at the current tax code, which again hasn’t changed that much since then, you’re right that there is an obstacle whereby if that head of household spouse, which is usually the woman, is earning more than a certain threshold of income, and it’s usually that threshold is what a part-time worker would make as opposed to a full-time employee, that means that woman is usually relegated or she can only work a part-time job.
For instance, that threshold today, they’ve raised it a little bit in recent years, but it’s now I think 1.5 million Japanese yen. So roughly in US dollar terms, $13,600 or so, which again in this country it’s typically a part-time salary as opposed to a full-time one. One of my recommendations to the government for a long time has been to neutralize the tax code, so essentially revise the tax code so that it is no longer penalizing women who desire to work more than a part-time job outside the home and essentially neutralize the code so that there is no bias embedded inside the code vis-à-vis what families want to do with their employment status.
So a little bit of improvement has occurred, but they could certainly do a lot more with essentially completely neutralizing the code so that everybody has an unbiased choice to work full-time or part-time outside the home.
Kathy, in your view, how far can womenomics go in addressing Japan’s demographic challenges, and what else should be done if the goal is to boost long term potential growth? Or is GDP growth really the best indicator for the success of economic policy?
I think that womenomics is only part of a solution long term for Japan’s demographic crisis. At the end of the day, there’s only a finite number of women in this country that can be tapped into, so even if you maxed out, i.e., even if you raised the female participation rate to that of Japanese men, which is quite high, but if you had that happen, that would still leave a gap, i.e., a need to be filled with other people or other sources of labor. And by that, obviously I’m talking about non-Japanese employees.
So, it is not a full solution, but at the same time given that, like I said earlier, the talent is there, the educational level is there, and many women I know want to re-enter the workforce, let’s give them that opportunity. Let’s give them the promotion opportunities. Let’s give them the salary opportunities, and I think that will benefit everybody because I think some people in Japan feel, “Well, if all these women…” For instance in our hypothetical calculation, if Japanese female participation rate equated to that of men or converged to that of men a few years ago when we did this calculation, that would boost the size of GDP by 12.5% or almost 13%, but it would also result in over seven million workers entering the work force, which for some Japanese men when they read this, they think, “Oh. That’s competition.” But I think that is a very short term reaction to what should be a longer term benefit for everybody insofar as a 13% larger boost to GDP should benefit everybody in society and not just for the women.
So, a lot of what we’ve been doing over the years is really advocating and try to educate people, companies, government agencies that this is no longer optional for society, i.e., tapping into the female workforce, this is an imperative economically. This is an imperative for businesses. It is, like I said, not the full solution, but it is definitely an important part of a positive solution as Japan really continues to move forward with how they’re dealing to its demographic crisis.
The dialogue has really just begun in the last few years. I cannot claim that everybody gets it in Japan. This will still take years, but I think at the end of the day, it’s a war for talent. And in the private sector, if you cannot create a work environment that’s going to attract the best quality talent whatever the gender of those employees are, then you simply are not going to be competitive nor thrive. I think at the end of the day, the good news is this has really become now an economic debate and discussion as opposed to previously was more of a human rights type of discussion, and that is why I think it’s just much more visible and much more discussed nowadays than ever before, which again I think is a healthy development.
Kathy, we were talking generally about broad indicators of female work force participation, but when you think about creating positive models for future generations of Japanese women, one area of focus is that the leadership of leading organizations, whether it’s in government or corporations. We understand that there have been discussions of setting certain targets for say a percentage of female executives or managers in an organization. Could you talk about progress there and the state of those discussions?
The subject of establishing targets, or in some countries we know that they’ve opted for outright quotas, has certainly been a subject of conversation in Japan as well, largely because even though we discussed earlier there are many more women working in Japan than ever before, again most of those jobs taken up recently by women are in part-time positions as opposed to full-time or leadership track type positions, so women in managerial positions compared to other developed countries is still very, very low. That has obviously been a subject of debate here.
I would say that in private sector, it continues to be a very controversial topic insofar as even women themselves don’t want to be promoted just because they’re a woman, because of their gender status. And so while I think that quotas are going to be very difficult for the private sector, I think what the government is trying to encourage, which is you now have to disclose some kind of gender diversity target, that’s probably a better or easier approach for many Japanese employers, which they’ve begun to do. Now again, setting targets versus quotas means it takes just a lot longer to reach higher goals, but again I think we have to start from somewhere. At least the beauty of targets is you can’t set a target without disclosing what the starting point is, and so I think that is a huge step for a nation where even finding out what the percentage of female managers are for big blue chip companies was virtually impossible until very recently.
I think I have a different opinion, however, when it comes to the public sphere. If you look for example at the percentage of women represented in the lower house of parliament, this is the more important house of Japan’s parliament, it is probably around 10%, which frankly is lower than similar ratios you see in some countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia and Libya, I believe. And if we think about, “Well, these are the policy makers who are determining where the nation is going over the long term, yet 90% of the decision makers are men. Only 10% are women. Does that not draw concern? Especially in, let me add, the geopolitically volatile environment that we think we’re heading into globally?”
My personal view is at the parliamentary or public sector sphere perhaps it’s not a bad idea to introduce, at least at a temporary scale, quotas to at least require political parties to field a certain number of female candidates, for instance. I believe Korea has done this quite successfully, so this might be something that Japan could experiment with. As I said, they could be temporary, not permanent. But I think 10% is frankly, simply unacceptable when it comes to long term policy decision making processes. This is my personal view, not an official view by any means, but I think this is where some politicians I’ve spoken with are actually sympathetic, and some people are actually discussing potential legislation along these lines. But again, it is still a very controversial topic even in the public sphere, so it will take time, but at least some people are beginning to move or at least propose things in this direction.
Kathy, maybe as we wrap up here, what lessons do you think the rest of the world might learn from Japan’s experience here. In a lot of ways, Japan experiences issues that maybe are the future for other developed countries, whether it’s in aging…You talk about the limited capacity for child care. I mean sitting here in the United States, it’s quite expensive in urban areas that are the center of a lot of economic growth to find childcare, and there’s scarcity, and just high costs.
I’m wondering, I know you focus on Japan, but are there any insights you have for the rest of the world as they may confront some of these demographic challenges?
There are definitely lessons to be learned from Japan’s experience, but also if we look at some of the, some people would call gold standard countries, say in Scandinavia for instance, and we look at some of those countries, for instance, in Scandinavia where, not only do they have very high female participation rates in both the private and public sectors, but they also have relatively higher birth rates as well. And if you look at the government policies that have been put in place, they have been extremely thoughtful about, frankly, from birth to death, for the entire lifecycle of a family, not just of women and not just of men, but of families. How best to maximize the labor pool in their respective countries has I think been an absolute priority on the national agenda, and therefore a lot of the policies that they have in place are really essentially geared to ensuring that every citizen can maximize his or her potential in that society.
And while it sounds very obvious, it is shocking how few countries, and how few governments, and how few leaders really tend to think about the future of their societies along these lines. At the end of the day, what we’re really talking about is, like I said, maximizing and fulfilling the potential of every single human being in that country or in that society, and doing it in as forward looking way as possible.
In some cases people say, “Oh. But we don’t like the idea of…” I think in countries like Norway, to have a minimum 40% of women on corporate boards as a requirement. That’s a very high bar, and it’s extremely challenging. Well, that’s what Norway has decided. It doesn’t mean it has to apply to every other country, but I think it’s helpful to draw on some of the best practice examples, many of which we do see around the world, and tailoring them to each individual country’s situation, to their societal needs, to their national priorities, to try to figure out what is the best-fit practices that will ensure that over the long term the human capital, the potential of that human capital is indeed maximized over time.
I don’t think this is rocket science. I think there are very imaginative and creative things that every country can do. Japan has, frankly, I think been very slow to wake up to the demographic realities that are now staring it in the face, but at least, better late than never, they are beginning to engage in these discussions more and more. The topic of diversity is a very common topic of discussion. It’s part of the vernacular in a way that it’s never been before. So, Japan has certainly not been the gold standard by any means on this particular topic, but I think it is desperately looking to other examples around the world on how they’ve been able to cope and essentially thrive, so I think every country should be encouraged to do the same.
Great. Well again, thank you so much, Kathy, for joining us.
We hope you enjoyed today’s conversation with Kathy. For more episodes like this, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please leave a review. Feedback from listeners like you will help more people find us. And for even more content, look up our Pacific Exchange blog, available at FRBSF.org. Thanks for joining us.