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Economist: Holding Back Half the Nation

March 29, 2014

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"By 2020 Mr Abe wants women to occupy 30% of all "leadership" positions—which would include members of parliament, heads of local government and corporate executives. His most practical step has been to try to shorten waiting lists for child care by allowing more private companies into a previously state-dominated sector."

KAREN KAWABATA represents the best of Japan's intellectual capital. She has just graduated from the University of Tokyo, the most prestigious in the country. Wry and poised, with an American mother and Japanese father, she has the languages and cosmopolitan attitude that Japanese companies particularly value nowadays. In April she will join McKinsey, a consultancy that should give her immediate membership of a globe-trotting elite.

Yet Ms Kawabata sees obstacles in her path. She is acutely aware of the difficulties she would face at traditional Japanese companies, should she find herself joining one. Ferociously long working hours, often stretching past midnight, are followed by sessions of "nominication", a play on the Japanese word for drinking, nomu, and the English word "communication"; these are where young hopefuls forge connections and build reputations. Nowadays women trying to impress the boss are allowed to drink plum wine mixed with plenty of soda instead of beer, says Ms Kawabata. But that is hardly a great improvement.

Above all, she worries that having a family will be nigh on impossible to combine with a demanding career. When she met her boyfriend's father for the first time this year, she reassured him about her intentions at McKinsey. "I told him that I would rethink my career in a few years' time," she says.

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