Why has Japan's 'womenomics' plan been a flop?

A subsidy program that was part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ambitious 'womenomics' policy may have been too restrictive. The government says it will try again.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe speaking during the Global Leaders' Meeting on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sunday.

Japan last year earmarked 120 million yen to award companies that were promoting women to senior management, expecting hundreds of firms to start writing in.

They didn't.

Now, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s embattled plan to get more women into the country’s shrinking workforce – also referred to as “womenomics” – has suffered another humiliating blow, as a senior official reveals that not a single company has applied for the million-dollar program.

A spokeswoman for the health ministry, the agency that would have administered the payouts, told The Japan Times the funds have gone unused, likely because eligibility requirements were too restrictive.

It’s “not a good program,” she said to the newspaper.

The government has pledged to try again. Come October, the agency will relaunch the subsidy initiative with looser criteria and bigger payouts, said the spokeswoman. Some companies could receive double the promised amount now, which stretches up to 300,000 yen.

Since taking office in 2012, Prime Minister Abe has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks that have “left ‘womenomics’ looking like a fading gimmick,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi.

Last year, for instance, a World Economic Forum report ranked Japan 104th out of 142 countries on global gender equality, well behind most of the world’s major economies and even some developing countries.

In Japan, the world’s third largest economy, only about 65 percent of women are employed, and many work part-time, according to CNN Money.

And of the women who do work, 60 percent tend to leave the workforce when they have their first child, reports the Monitor. Mothers say there are not enough childcare services.

Other factors feeding the gender gap range from low skills to a culture of ingrained sexism, according to The Japan Times.

But speaking at a United Nations meeting on women’s empowerment in New York on Sunday, the prime minister vowed to hold steady.

“Japan will push the agenda on women forward vigorously when it holds the presidency of a G-7 summit next year,” Abe said.

The Japanese leader cited a new law that will take effect in the spring, requiring large companies to set targets explicitly aimed at hiring and promoting women.

If Abe’s plan works, women could add about 7.1 million employees to the Japanese workforce and help boost GDP by 13 percent, Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs told CNN Money.

The government has also increased its funding of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women by a factor of ten in just the last two years, reports The Japan Times. An office was recently opened in Tokyo.

“Japan will implement its resolve to lead the world in making the 21st century a century with no human rights violations against women,” said Abe.

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