Suppose you are the Prime Minister in a country with a poor gender-equality ranking and a potential population crisis on hand. In order to encourage the birth of more children, should you
A. Focus on wage discrimination and the glass ceiling* so that women can earn a living wage?
B. Focus on legal and social actions to reduce the unpaid required overtime and increase flextime/telecommuting?
C. Focus on building more affordable childcare facilities and training more workers in early childhood education?
D. Focus on revamping the adoption/foster/group home system?**
E. Focus on treating women as walking uteri devoid of logic and reason?
A little bit of A (if only women CEOs) and C and a lot of E, apparently. As you have probably have heard, Prime Minister Abe has come up with new, fun ways to insult women’s intelligence, such as the “women’s notebook,” which reminds women that our eggs will shrivel and dry one day, so it’s best to get on this baby-making business pronto. As reported in Kwan Weng Kin’s “Japanese women trash ‘notebook’ idea for having babies” on AsiaOne,
Announcing the proposal earlier this month, Ms Masako Mori, the minister in charge of birth issues, said: “As (a woman) grows older, it becomes harder to become pregnant. The risk to mother and unborn child also increases. We must spread this knowledge among teenage girls and upwards to enable women to make choices and plan their lives.”
My favorite part of the article is the round-up of some women’s reactions to the notebook:
“It’s none of the government’s business,” said marketing officer Natsuki Sasaya, 31.
“They seem to have concluded that women alone have no knowledge or awareness of those things. I have friends who want to have children but cannot do so and are on fertility treatment.”
Ms Mori was severely reproached in Parliament by opposition lawmaker Renho, who had briefly held the same portfolio from September 2011. “It is up to the individual to decide when to get married or to have children,” Ms Renho said.
In an article on the Nikkei Business website, Ms Kaoru Kawai, who has a PhD in health sciences, wrote: “I don’t remember being told that one can have a baby by oneself.”
Japan Crush‘s Mika also lists some reactions in “‘Support Women In Workplace To Increase Birthrate’, Says Abe“:
3 years? And if your second kid is born at the end of those 3 years, do you get another 3 years on top of that?
I’m entirely for supporting female employment. However, if you think about the actually contents, they are too superficial. I think that if we don’t properly re-examine things, there won’t be any results.
Mother of god, Abe and Mori, we’re not stupid. Unless people are drinking the Sex & The City Koolaid about women in their late-30s with non-viable eggs miraculously being able to get pregnant and give birth, women more often than not grow up considering their lives with children because that’s how we’re socialized.
Lyla Cicero wrote a really excellent piece called “I Was ‘Leaning Out’ of My Career Before It Even Began” in Role/Reboot about how she had always considered her future work-life balance with children and a career, but when her husband tried to “lean in” at home, he faced a lot of institutionalized and social discrimination. She writes,
Then I saw Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk in which she urges women to “lean in” instead of out of their careers when children are on the horizon. “Don’t leave until you leave,” she advises. I thought back to my pregnancy, how I made no plans to pursue a career immediately after obtaining my doctorate because I was already pregnant. I thought about how I’d been determined, for years, not to get pregnant until I was already licensed, but then freaked out about my biological clock, and instead, am now trudging slowly through the licensing process part-time.
Then I thought back further. I was honestly stunned when I realized I had been leaning out of my career since well before my children were conceived. An honest, critical assessment of my life history led me to the terrifying conclusion that I started leaning out well before graduating college.***
Note: because Japan has one of the lowest rates of births outside of marriage (see OECD 2012 [pdf]) and the lack of legal and even social recognition of same-sex couples, I’ll be discussing this issue as it relates to heterogamous married couples in Japan.
The same is true in Japan. Women are already socialized to consider marriage and children in their futures, but men aren’t; and if men are considering a future with children, it seems unlikely that the current social and work cultures would really allow them to participate in family life. Legally, men are entitled to a portion of the parental leave following the birth of a child, but if their companies essentially refuse to let them take it, what good is it?
Meanwhile, the other big part of Abe’s measures to increase the birth rate seems ill-advised: 3-year maternity leave. Abe claims that it will allow women to care for their children for the first three years, as they claim to want (see comments on this article, too), but to me it seems like a measure for companies to force mothers onto permanent maternity leave. It could work if the time had to be split equally between both parents, but it seems unsustainable: if parents space children 2-4 years apart, that’s 4-6 years on leave. What company could manage with that?
A better solution would be to work with companies on flex-time, reduced hours, telecommuting, on-site childcare, and other solutions that allow both mothers and fathers to continue their careers, work effectively for their companies, and have time to raise their children no matter what their industry is. (A computer programmer or city hall employee could telecommute, whereas a construction worker or nurse may benefit more from flex-time/reduced hours and childcare.)
In the Financial Times article “Abe pushes for more women in senior roles,” analyst Kathy Matsui is quoted, “The fact that the prime minister is talking this openly about women as part of the growth agenda is a big step,” she said. “But it’s one to talk the talk, another to walk the walk.”
In other words, if you want to know how to “solve” the birth dearth, Abe and Mori, you need to start at the conclusion and work your way backward to discover the social causes–you’ve got a decent start with the “why do women quit?” issue, but you need to go deeper and to do so without insulting women. The “support of women” means you need to step up for women’s legal, institutional, and social equality, something that goes far, far beyond promoting motherhood at a “reasonable” age.
I’m disturbed by the whiplash I get from Abe and the LDP: actually talking about women CEOs and supporting women in the workplace is tempered by unrealistic proposals, the tendency to treat “support of women” as only the support of mothers (but not necessarily fathers), and for the cause not to be the right to equality but the desire for more children and currying political favor without enacting real political action. (I might believe him when the surnames bill passes. Maybe.) The LDP claims to care and to be moving forward, but to what end–more female support? More babies? (And why is Huffington in his pocket?) The full details of the plan are supposed to come out in June; let’s hope Abe and his team understand that you can’t just slap a couple bandaids on this issue and claim you’re the champions of gender equality.
*Hire women as full-time workers, not just as part-timers and contractors; expect and plan for women to return after maternity leave; enforce parental leave for fathers; alleviate social stigma for fathers who care for their children.
**Also: immigration reform, allowing same-sex couples to adopt, making workplaces more efficient and cost effective with modern technology, alleviating discrimination against “non Japanese,” seeing how countries with equal participation in the workforce are doing business, allowing separate legal names for married couples, and a host of other options.
*** Interestingly, American teens seem to falsely believe they are infertile, though I’m not sure how teens in Japan feel.