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Japanese Women Still Searching for Equality in the Workplace - 2002-07-15

Japanese women are not achieving equality in the workplace as fast as women in many other parts of the world. They battle an entrenched corporate culture that favors men.

51-year-old Eiko Shirafuji is from Osaka, Japan's second-largest city. When she graduated from high school at 18, she was eager to work at Sumitomo Electric, one of Japan's largest companies. But she became outraged that she was never promoted, while male colleagues climbed the corporate ladder. "I have been working as an accountant in the same department ever since I joined the company. I got no appropriate job training," she says. "Men who started working the same year, with similar academic backgrounds, receive higher wages and fill management positions."

Ms. Shirafuji is one of many women who experience discrimination in Japanese companies. In the 1960's and '70's, as Japan was gearing up to become an economic superpower, employment practices favored men.

Opportunities for women were limited. Many corporations hired women just to serve tea and run errands. They received lower pay, and were encouraged to quit when they married. Women who wanted to keep working after having children were hired as low-paid, part-time employees.

Mami Nakano is a lawyer specializing in gender issues. "The management practice is deep-rooted. For centuries, men have been the center of social order," she says. "After Japan's defeat in World War II, it was considered virtuous for male workers to sacrifice themselves for their companies. So men are typically seen as breadwinners, while the women are homemakers.

In 1995, Ms. Shirafuji sued, demanding Sumitomo Electric pay compensation for denying her promotions.

Five years later, the court rejected her lawsuit, saying that gender-based division of work in the late 1960's was widely accepted. Ms. Shirafuji appealed to a higher court. The verdict may be delivered next year.

Conditions for working women have not improved much since Ms. Shirafuji filed her suit. While more than 26 million Japanese women hold jobs, recent government figures show that in sexual equality, Japan ranks 41st out of 70 countries surveyed.

Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi raised expectations when he appointed a record number of women to his Cabinet. But activists say it had no impact on other women.

Japan has a two-track labor system, one for general workers, the other for management. Women make up 40 percent of the work force, but the majority of them are on the general track. Most companies give only limited promotions in the general sector.

Japan adopted an Equal Employment Opportunity law in the 1980's. Three years ago, the law was changed to prohibit sexual discrimination. The new rules forbid companies from hiring workers based on gender. But many women say companies are not following it. Ms. Shirafuji agrees. "The situation of women has not improved in the workplace, because there is little opportunity for us to apply for executive positions," she says. "I will continue to pursue my case in court, and give hope to other women."

A Labor Ministry survey found that women fill only 2.2 percent of management-track jobs. Women, on average, earn 65 percent of what their male counterparts receive, the biggest gap in the industrialized world.

Shizuko Koedo, with a support group called, Working Women's Network, says "the present equal opportunity law is not sufficient, and needs to be revised, so women will have the incentive of promotion."

Still, there is some change. In February, a Tokyo court ordered Nomura Securities, the nation's largest securities firm, to pay more than $4 million to 12 women. They sued the firm for mental suffering caused by discrimination. It was the first time a court ruled the practice illegal. A similar verdict was handed down against Sumitomo Life Insurance last month.

There are other hopeful signs. The country's major banking group, Tokyo-Mitsubishi, appointed its first woman branch manager last year. Asahi Bank this month abolished the two-track career system, giving female employees new opportunities for promotion.