When a College Degree Means a Job Serving Tea
Women's status in Japan Inc. receives increasingly sharp, and public, jibes
To hear Japan's women tell it, the men at work are appalling.Skip to next paragraph
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There's the manager who blows his nose, hands his secretary the sodden handkerchief, and asks her to take a look.
Or there's the boss who whips out his nail clippers in the middle of the office to give the toenails a quick trim.
The men aren't too happy either. They'll tell you about the piggy secretary who ate too quickly and choked. They talk of the lazy assistant who lies about how hard she's working.
Welcome to Japan's corporate battle of the sexes, a skirmish being fought in the columns of two weekly magazines. Corporate minions (the women) and managers (the men) write in each week to moan about their office counterparts.
The columns provide a sometimes hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable window onto corporate life that demolishes the image of a sober Japan Inc. They're also a barometer of women's shifting expectations and male managers' unchanging attitudes. It's a deepening divide underscored by corporate structure and generational differences.
"These older men treat the office like an extension of their home," says Chinami Shimizu. She writes a column - Shukan Bunshun - that chronicles the challenges of being an "office lady," or OL, in an overwhelmingly male world.
The men run headlong into young women who arrive at the office door with higher expectations, she says. "More women are entering the work force. They're more experienced and more independent."
The working world hasn't changed much, though.
Japan provides two basic career tracks: management or the route women are most often urged to take, the clerical or office lady path, whose workplace challenges include, and are often confined to, filing and serving tea.
Even with recent amendments to strengthen the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law, young women recount interviews in which they're asked about boyfriends, marriage plans, and their ability to withstand overtime. Then they're urged to go the clerical route.
Women are often urged or asked to leave their jobs after marriage, and working women are usually in their 20s, while their managers are well into middle age.
"These women are a very bored group of people," says Shimizu, a petite powerhouse who began her career as an OL and is now the author of some 50 books on working women. "They're dissatisfied too, because there is absolutely no future to their jobs and so many small frustrations to deal with every day."
When Ms. Shimizu left her computer company to start her "OL Committee" column 10 years ago, 200 women wrote in to complain about their jobs and their male managers. Today, 8,000 women respond when she poses a question.
And the frustrations abound.
"To the former chairman of my bank," writes one woman: "Don't spend company money to buy gifts for your grandson!"
Another chides her superiors for the office politics after a merger with another company. "They have too much pride [to cooperate]. Nothing's working!" A third lays it on the line: "OLs are full of frustration!"