Japanese Women Refuse to Bow to Job Discrimination
IN 1965, Kiyoko Kitagawa did something unusual for a woman employee at a Japanese corporation: She got married and stayed in her job.Skip to next paragraph
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Her boss at Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd., one of Japan's biggest steelmakers and a member of the venerable Sumitomo group, did not admire this expression of corporate loyalty. He gave her a desk next to his and nothing to do - for 18 months. Thus began her struggle with discrimination against women, a struggle that now seems destined to change relations between the sexes in the Japanese workplace.
Ms. Kitagawa passed the time by reading. A soft-voiced woman whose face can look worried and calm at the same time, she remembers appreciating the suffering-enhanced characters created by Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. ''They faced up to hardships,'' she explains.
In 1968, Kitagawa again tested the boundaries permissible in the Japanese workplace. This time she had a baby and insisted that she would continue working.
Her boss calmly told her, she says, that ''even with dogs and cats, children are raised at their mothers' hands, but you leave your child at a day-care center. You're lower than a dog.''
In spite of the unpleasant early years, Kitagawa has stayed with Sumitomo Metal. She reports that other superiors have been supportive of her independence and given her fulfilling assignments.
But a few years ago, a personnel manager said something that disturbed her so deeply that it has become the basis of what promises to be a landmark legal case.
Kitagawa says she was incensed to hear a personnel director tell her that managers routinely give women employees mediocre job evaluations in order to justify lack of promotion and lower wages.
At about the same time, she says, she learned that a younger male colleague serving as her assistant was making $20,000 more per year. All around her, she asserts, she had watched men with similar educational backgrounds rise faster and get paid more.
On Aug. 8, she and eight other women employees of three Sumitomo companies filed a suit charging their employers with sex discrimination in pay and promotion, and demanding millions of dollars in back pay they say they would have received if they were men.
Officials at Sumitomo Metal deny any discrimination, although they declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
The lawsuit is symbolic of a growing determination on the part of Japanese women to fight for better treatment in the workplace.
But the issue is not just equal pay for equal work - the women are also attacking the way Japan's postwar economy is structured. Their struggle is as much on behalf of men as it is against inequities that favor men in the workplace.
''We want to remove discrimination against women, but also we have to correct the traditional employment system,'' says Mitsuko Miyaji, an Osaka lawyer representing the women.
Ms. Miyaji shares her clients' goal, and at times can sound like a revolutionary: ''I want to destroy this system.''
The 'M' curve
What these women are up against is illustrated by a newsletter put out this summer by the union at Sumitomo Metal's Osaka headquarters. A section on ''June brides'' suggests how early to order invitations and when to book a reception hall - and reminds women workers to submit their resignation a month before their wedding.
The union newsletter is evidence that working women in Japan remain bound by expectations that do not apply to men.
The tradition is this: After graduation from high school, junior college, or university, women join a company, preferably a prestigious one likely to draw good potential husbands.
Usually the women do clerical jobs. After several years of work, they resign before marriage, or at the latest, when they have a child. Often they return to the workforce as part-time or temporary workers once their children have grown.