Japan's career-minded women make gains

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Conservative Japanese companies are opening their doors -- if only a crack -- to career-minded women with the right education. But the Japanese job market remains a man's world, and most firms still see women as a source of cheap, short-term labor.

``There's a polarization of the female work force going on,'' Takako Sodei, an Ochanomizu University sociologist, said. ``Firms are hiring some talented women and treating them the same as men, while also hiring a lot of part-time female workers.''

``Many women are satisfied working part time or on six-month to two-year contracts,'' Yoko Sano, professor of business at Keio University, said. ``It's very convenient for firms to hire low-paid female workers and have them quit.''

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Women provide companies with a flexible, low-cost work force to supplement men, who form the core of their full-time, permanent staff.

For career-minded women, opportunity seems greatest for college graduates in high-technology sectors, where firms are short of men with training in such key fields as computer software development.

But overall, prospects for women are slow to improve. Women in professional or technical jobs account for about 13 percent of all women employees, against 9 percent in 1960. One-third of all women working for firms have clerical jobs.

Few experts predict any major change when a new Equal Employment Opportunity Act comes into effect next April. Employers strongly opposed the bill, although it imposes no penalties on companies that discriminate against women in hiring, training, or promotion.

That many women expect to work for only a few years before leaving for marriage or childbirth may also help firms adapt more quickly in an age of rapid technological change. For most working women, the main issue remains how to juggle jobs with their primary duties at home. Personnel practices operate in subtle ways to reinforce traditional views.

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