Our final Spotlight Amabassador, Florian Kohlbacher, calls on Japan to stop making “lazy excuses” for it’s position on gender equality. Having discovered that the average time taken for paternity leave was one day, Florian shares more revelations and deep-rooted challenges that Japan must resolve to create a gender equal society for the next generations.
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Florian Kohlbacher – SPOTLIGHT AMBASSADOR INTERVIEW
Director, Economist Corporate Network, North Asia
Interview by Lucy Alexander
Japan is “lagging about 30 years” behind North America and Europe when it comes to gender equality, says Florian Kohlbacher. The time for “lazy excuses” is over.
The main problem, says the director of the Economist Corporate Network in Japan – the consultancy and analysis arm of the respected news magazine – is the gap between appearance and reality which is tolerated in Japanese culture. This means that progressive-sounding government targets, company policies and even laws can float unanchored on the surface, while an ocean of discrimination and dysfunction lurks undisturbed beneath.
Dr Kohlbacher cites the ikumen phenomenon. “You have all this talk about new father. But if you actually go into organisations, where is it really being implemented?”
Before he joined the Economist last year, Dr Kohlbacher was an academic researching the effects of demographic and social change on business. In one 2013 interview the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare told him, “In Japan, only about 2% of fathers take paternity leave, but in our ministry, the figure is 10%, isn’t that great?”
Kohlbacher was not impressed. “You’re the law-makers telling people to take paternity leave, and you’re happy with 10%? In the public sector it has to be 100% or it doesn’t make any sense at all.” The most depressing revelation, he said, was that the average time taken for paternity leave was one day. “This is not paternity leave, this is nothing.”
He also interviewed couples who faced multiple barriers to equality. Those who began married life as equals reverted to a traditional pattern once the wife became pregnant. The husband’s company might have an ikumen scheme, but employees were too scared to take it up. “They often said ‘I would be the first one and I don’t dare’. And sometimes their wives said, ‘If I have to take time off, he needs to pursue his career, I don’t want him to be an ikumen.’”
The women also reported subtle pressure to leave once they became pregnant. “Their superior asks questions like, ‘You sure you want to come back after having the baby?’. So this kind of pressure – which is absolutely illegal – is a reality.”
Japanese organisations are “definitely not ready” to treat male and female employees equally, says Kohlbacher. Real change, he says, has to come simultaneously from the grassroots, from companies being truly proactive and from government saying “100% of our male employees are actually going to take paternity leave”.
Otherwise, he says, “if what you show to the outside is not a reality, that’s even more dangerous than doing nothing, because it gives us the feeling that everything’s fine. Abe can walk around saying Womenomics is working. Problem solved. And nothing changes.”
What would actually make a difference, he says, is destigmatising flexible working by decoupling it from parental leave. It should instead be the norm for people “caring for an ageing parent, caring for someone with a disability, whatever people face as a private personal challenge. They need understanding instead of discrimination”.
A similarly holistic approach needs to be taken to goals such as limiting overtime, says Kohlbacher. “Japanese salaries for non-managerial jobs are extremely low, so if you can’t do overtime, how do you feed your family? You have to pay them a proper salary. Also, do people actually want to go home? Does your wife want to have to feed you? Do you actually have any space in your house? We need to look at the bigger picture.”
Kohlbacher also recommends specific gender diversity education in hoikuen and primary schools. “By the time young people are starting work, it’s already too late”, he says. Young people should also be encouraged to take their fate into their own hands. Too often, he says, exploitation is tolerated in order to preserve harmony. “I understand you want to avoid conflict but ‘shoganai’ is also a very lazy excuse.”