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Make Way For Japanese Women With Welding Guns


International Business: Japan

Make Way for Japanese Women with Welding Guns

Japanese women are winning more rights--and factory jobs

Madoka Matsumae, 24, doesn't want to be treated like a man, just to earn as much as one. For six years, she has snapped rings onto pistons at Mazda Motor Corp.'s engine plant in Hiroshima. Yet unlike her male colleagues, Matsumae leaves work every day at 5:30 p.m. Japanese factory workers can earn up to 30% more than their regular pay by doing night shifts. But women have been banned from working after 10 p.m. or putting in more than six hours of overtime a week.

That is starting to change. On Apr. 1, Japan revised its Equal Employment Opportunity Law to end overly protective restrictions on women's work. The law also is much tougher on sexual harassment and gender-based hiring. The most immediate impact will be felt in factories. Thanks to the greater flexibility, Japanese manufacturers are likely to hire many more women for manual jobs. An aging population means fewer young men are entering the workforce. So companies must rely more on women to keep factories humming.

Factories are even starting to refit assembly lines with lighter tools and equipment to accommodate female workers. Toyota Motor Corp. spent $424,000 to retool two assembly lines that will be staffed by 650 women this year--up from 440 in 1998--and 1,100 later. It's also giving women more training in everything from sexual harassment policies to how to work on assembly lines. "There are more women interested in this type of work than in the past," says Tateaki Harada, a Toyota human resources manager. The attraction is a livelihood that offers more than sitting around an office. "I'd rather have a more active job," explains 18-year-old Mazda recruit Nami Kitamura. "I'm looking forward to showing that I can do as good a job as a man."

The gender gap in Japan is still wide in comparison with the West. Even with 60 new female hires this year, only 8 of every 1,000 Mazda factory workers will be women, compared with 158 per 1,000 at the North American factories of Mazda's largest shareholder, Ford Motor Co. At Toyota City, the ratio is still just 2 per 1,000. What's more, the gains will be felt more in factories than in the white-collar world. The Labor Ministry says that 1 in 10 Japanese managers is a woman. But this includes those who run their own businesses. Female executives are rare at Japan's elite corporations, and few experts expect dramatic improvement. "The good jobs are still restricted to men," contends Mizuho Fukushima, a leading women's rights activist and a House of Councillors member. "Women are so low on the totem pole that they cannot see what is happening at the top."WOMEN'S WORK. Women still suffer because most were hired and trained as clerical workers. Men are more likely to be put on a management track, while women spend most of their time filing papers and reserving bullet train tickets. "Women in these companies don't have the same training, so they don't know what to do," says human resources consultant Yuriko Miyazaki.

The revised labor law, however, is an important step forward. Because of the ban on sexual discrimination, companies can no longer advertise positions for women or men. Big corporations such as Toyota, Mitsui, and NEC now want to put women as well as men on the same management track.

Japanese women are beginning to hold on to their jobs longer and thus improve their chances of moving up the ladder. Traditionally, women stayed only long enough to find a husband with a secure job. Or they worked part-time.

Japan's harsher economic environment is changing that attitude. As corporations restructure, middle-aged husbands no longer have the job security they once had. And with an unemployment rate of 4.6% and rising, there's no guarantee of landing a new job. Cost-cutting pressures also mean that women must work harder to improve their skills--lest they be replaced by part-timers.

It's unfortunate that job security in Japan is declining just as vast opportunities are finally opening up for women. But that is a trade-off many Japanese women are willing to accept. Their next challenge is to break down the doors of the executive suite.By Emily Thornton in TokyoReturn to top


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