Abe backs "womenomics" to increase, improve Japan's workforce

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe voiced his support Tuesday for enhancing women's participation in Japan's workforce in front of business and government heavyweights, reiterating his goal of having women hold 30 percent of senior management positions in the country by 2020.

"Japan's future is resting on whether we can allow everyone to achieve their goals regardless of gender, age or disability," Abe said at the Women in Business Summit in Tokyo.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and Goldman Sachs executive Kathy Matsui were among the participants in the event which was jointly held by the U.S.-Japan Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

"The advancement of women will allow the whole of Japan to discover new values and become a more dynamic society," Abe said.

As part of implementing "womenomics," Abe has pledged to provide 300,000 new after-school care places for children in the first three years of elementary school, so their parents can work a full day.

Abe agreed with data presented by Matsui that showed harnessing women's participation in the workforce could raise Japan's gross domestic product by nearly 13 percent.

Matsui, managing director, chief Japan strategist and co-head of Asia Economics, Commodities and Strategy Research at Goldman Sachs, said engaging women in the workforce would be crucial in protecting Japan's economy from the effects of a rapidly shrinking working population.

Although Japan has problems meeting childcare needs, most professional mothers who stop working after childbirth actually do so because of a lack of satisfaction with their careers, which can be improved by providing more female role models in senior government and commercial positions and closing the pay gap between men and women, Matsui said.

Fully utilizing women's strengths would add to both the quantity of Japan's workforce, to the tune of seven million people, as well as the quality, with firms with high ratios of female directors outperforming those with lower ratios in both Japan and the United States, she added.

Government and corporate policy changes must be fuelled by a change in societal mindset, said ACCJ President Jay Ponazecki.

"We need to get the message out that achieving (Abe's) 2020 goals is something we actually can do, and have more Japanese women and Japanese employers believe that they can make this happen," she said.

So far the chamber has called for reforming immigration laws to allow families to hire foreign domestic workers, extending the after-school care scheme to the final three years of elementary school, and introducing an intermediate option between permanent and contract employment with negotiated severance pay to give employers incentives to parents.

"It's no longer that this is just the right thing to do -- it's the thing we have to do. It's now a necessity," Ponazecki said.