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Northeast Asia

Japan’s prolonged gender failure

Japan still lags much of the world it comes to gender equality. But bankers are leading the change.

In December 2012, then-prime minister Shinzo Abe issued a stark warning to Japan’s enduring patriarchy: gender diversity is not just vital to revitalizing the economy, it’s now the law of the land.

Abe punctuated the point by mandating women would hold at least 30% of leadership roles by 2020. He urged corporate Japan to follow suit, pointing to a growing consensus that boards that made cultivated and utilisied female talent are more innovative, productive and competitive.

Yet Japan’s gender reckoning hasn’t gone well. In 2015, Abe’s team bowed to the stubbornness of the patriarchy and lowered the women-in-leadership-positions target to 7% by 2021. Last June, Abe all but admitted defeat: the 30% goal has now been punted to 2030, at best. Prime minister Yoshihide Suga, who replaced Abe in September, does not appear to have made gender equality a priority.

For all the talk of diversifying Japan’s boardrooms and legislative voices, the nation fell 20 levels in the World Economic Forum’s gender-equality index on Abe’s watch -- to 121st. That puts a Group of Seven economy behind Benin, 113 places behind the Philippines and a long way from 52nd-ranked China. It may be 2020, but Japan trails Saudi Arabia and Libya in female representation in parliament.

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