Fading Opportunities for Women in the Land of the Rising Sun


I am just back from a vacation in Japan (highly recommend it), where I was as struck by the cutting-edge technology in everything from toilets to trains and the wondrous aesthetic sense of shop assistants and chefs alike, as I was by the appalling gender gap.

Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy (overtaken by China in 2010, in case you missed it), is the world’s most rapidly aging advanced country, with also the widest gender gap among developed countries. This is not something to be proud of; yet, one leader after another, one CEO after another, has failed to address the issue, to Japan’s great detriment. 

Global female labor-force participation has stalled at about 50 percent for two decades, according to a report in September from the International Monetary Fund.  More than half the nations in East Asia and the Pacific have restrictions on the types of jobs women can do, according to the World Bank. Failure to integrate women fully into the workforce is costing the Asia-Pacific region about $89 billion a year in unrealized output, according to the United Nations. 

Japan’s 63 percent of women in the workforce is comparable more to developing countries, and most women are confined to lower-paying and lower-rung jobs. Even in fancy offices, women until very recently were required to serve tea to their male colleagues and  having a baby is a sure route to career-wilderness, as there is little by way of public daycare, and hiring a nanny is an expensive process.

Christine Lagarde, among the most high-profile women in the world as managing director of the IMF, has made it something of a personal crusade to call out countries on their female participation, and in asking them to report on gender issues. In a paper last year called ‘Can Women Save Japan’, the IMF highlighted the many hurdles to working women in Japan, and suggested ways to remove them – primarily, with policies to reduce the gender gap in work and better support for working mothers. The economic outlook for Japan would be much brighter if more women joined the labour force, it said.

In April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced measures to elevate the role of women, calling for women to fill 30 percent of senior positions across different parts of the society by 2020 and vowing to eliminate waiting lists for childcare and provide training for mothers returning to work. While Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba and Daiwa have all recently pledged to increase the number of female managers significantly in the coming years, Japan resolutely refuses to mandate quotas for women in the government or in company boards. The sun may well be setting, and quickly.  

When Saudi Women Went For a Drive


A bunch of Saudi Arabian women went for a drive on Saturday. There’s no punchline to that, because there’s nothing funny in the fact that these women risked imprisonment – or worse – in defying a ban on driving in the kingdom.

This was the third such protest staged by Saudi Arabian women against a de facto ban that has led to women being arrested, sentenced to flogged and losing their jobs for defying orders. There have been calls from various quarters to lift this ban – which really has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with exercising control over women. Saudi women also need a man’s permission to get a job or travel abroad.

But the Saudi government – and the country’s men – appear divided on whether it should lift the ban on driving. While the king has made some noises about lifting the ban in 2015, and various men showed their support on Saturday, one particularly enlightened cleric last month said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems.

Limiting the mobility of women is a time-honored practice in many countries, kept alive and well by politicians and religious leaders pandering for votes and afraid to incur the wrath of the religious conservatives. Clerics in Afghanistan this year barred women from leaving home without a male chaperone. Politicians and police in India advised women to not stay outdoors after dark following a brutal gang rape in Delhi last year. Movements such as Take Back the Night haven’t quite had an impact here; what we really need is more women going for a drive or a walk. Free and unafraid.

12 Years a Slave. How About a Lifetime in Slavery ?

Moving as the film is, even more gut-wrenching is a global index published today that shows a staggering 29.8 million people serving as modern-day slaves in countries ranging from Nigeria to Myanmar.

Ten countries account for three-fourths of the world’s slaves, and India alone is host to almost half the total, according to Walk Free, an Australia-based rights group. While slavery is illegal in every country, the fight against it is not a big priority for most governments, and some forms of the practice – including forced marriage and trafficking of women and children for domestic work and as sex workers – may not be considered slavery in these countries.

Walk Free doesn’t break down the numbers to show how many modern-day slaves are women, but it’s likely to be a high proportion of the total. Yet there’s not much action on say, domestic workers in Asia or the Middle East, a practice that encourages the trafficking of women. Despite reports of violence against domestic workers in cities from New Delhi to Dubai, the demand – ironically fueled at least in part by greater numbers of working women – hasn’t abated.

Some Philippine recruiters recently decided to stop sending maids to Singapore till the issue of the payment of a placement fee is addressed – which often leaves maids with little cash in hand. Indonesia has demanded more safety for its workers in Singapore after a frightening number fell to their deaths cleaning windows in high-rise apartments.


Yet, while the decision in Hong Kong to not grant residency permits to domestic workers who have lived there for years has fueled the debate for greater rights, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to end slave-like conditions – or even grant a mandatory day off to domestic workers.

So for every country that steps in to try and protect the rights of its women who are trafficked to richer countries, poorer countries including Cambodia and Myanmar willingly send their womenfolk into slavery.  Public apathy is as much to blame as government inaction.

When Constitutions Collude to Keep Women Out of Politics

Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded a five-day visit to Singapore, her first to the city state. In her many meetings and speeches – all warm, witty and carefully delivered – she asked companies to invest responsibly in Myanmar, invited Burmese nationals in Singapore to participate in the country’s transition, and reiterated her demand that the constitution be changed, so she can run in elections to be held in 2015.

Myanmar’s constitution gives the military a lot of power in the political system and prohibits anyone with children who are foreign nationals from holding the posts of President or Vice-President. That is clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals.

That the military has no interest in giving up its cushy position is hardly surprising. That a woman is deliberately being sidelined from the political system in Asia is also, unfortunately, not surprising.

Women’s political participation in Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands is well below the global average, according to research from Monash University. In all these regions, “there is strong resistance to women’s participation in public life evidenced in the formal statements of leaders and politicians and in the mentalities of the broader societies. Cultural, customary and religious discourses are frequently used to moralize that the ‘rightful’ place of women is NOT in politics,” the researchers wrote in a paper last year. Violence against women in politics or those seeking political office is very common in these countries, the report noted.

While gender quotas and reservations have significantly improved women’s political participation in some Asian countries, others are dragging their feet over such legislation. In India, a women’s reservation bill in India, which proposes to amend the constitution to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the lower house of Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies for women, has languished for more than three years in the lower house. Women’s political participation in India is 11 percent.

Elsewhere, women do slightly better. In China, where Mao famously said ‘women hold up half the sky’, their political participation is about a fifth of the total, whereas in South Korea it’s 16 percent. The Philippines – where President Aquino, whose mother was once President, and who has recently appointed women to key posts including Chief Justice and Tax Collector – the participation rate is nearly a fourth, while in Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra is Prime Minister, albeit a mere puppet of her brother, the rate is 15 percent. Myanmar – and this should come as no surprise to Daw Suu – has the lowest score of all Asian countries measured, of less than 2 percent.

Investors rushing in to cash in on the gold rush that is Myanmar would do well to remember that statistic alongside the numbers on Myanmar’s gas reserves and its potential for mobile phone users and credit-card holders.

Dig my daughters? Vote for me

It’s not unusual for politicians to parade their families before voters to drive home the point that if they have managed to raise a family with few calamities, surely they can be entrusted with the task of running a country – or a constituency.

But Tony Abbott, leader of Australia’s Liberal-National coalition and the country’s freshly-elected prime minister takes the biscuit.

In a video message that lead candidates were required to send to participants in the Big Brother house (I know, but let’s focus on the matter at hand for now), Abbott appeared flanked by two of his daughters and proceeded to say: “If you want to know who to vote for, I’m the guy with the not bad looking daughters.” To the credit of the contestants, even they appeared taken aback.

It wasn’t the only sexist remark Abbott has made. During his campaign, he also made reference to the housewives of Australia doing the ironing and described virginity as “the greatest gift” a woman could give someone. There’s also, of course, the infamous “breast” menu for a party fundraiser that set new standards in sexism Down Under.

But of course, Mr. Abbott’s biggest claim to fame is being the subject of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s completely inspired — and totally unscripted — diatribe in parliament, in which she described him as the very definition of misogyny in modern Australia. If you haven’t seen that video in full, I urge you to do so. It’s worth all 15 minutes of your time.

Sadly, nothing’s changed since that speech. Going by the campaign and the repeated, vicious attacks on Gillard — not just from politicians but even radio personalities — it would seem that that brand of misogyny is not going anywhere in Australia. Is it any wonder then that so few women take the plunge into politics.