Land of the Wasted Talent

by Schumpeter - Economist.com, 21/01/2012


Outside the kitchen, the talents of half the country's population are woefully underemployed, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Laura Sherbin of the Centre for Work-Life Policy, an American think-tank, show in a new study called “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps”.

Nearly half of the country's university graduates are female but only 67% of these women have jobs, many of which are part-time or involve serving tea. Women with degrees are much more likely than Americans (74% to 31%) to quit their jobs voluntarily. Whereas most Western women who take time off do so to look after children, these Asian women are more likely to say that the strongest push came from employers who do not value them. A startling 49% of the country's highly educated women who quit do so because they feel their careers have stalled.

The workplace is not quite as sexist as it used to be. Pictures of naked women, ubiquitous on salarymen’s desks in the 1990s, have been removed. Most companies have rules against sexual discrimination. But educated women are often shunted into dead-end jobs. Old-fashioned bosses see their role as prettifying the office and forming a pool of potential marriage partners for male employees. And a traditional white-collar working day makes it hard to pick up the kids from school.

Even if the company rule book says that flexitime is allowed, those who work from home are seen as uncommitted to the team. Employees are expected to show their faces before 9am, typically after a long commute on a train so packed that the gropers cannot tell whom they are groping. Staff are also under pressure to stay late, regardless of whether they have work to do: nearly 80% of men get home after 7pm, and many attend semi-compulsory drinking binges in hostess bars until the small hours. 

Besides finding these hours just a bit inconvenient, working mothers are unlikely to get much help at home from their husbands. Working mums do four hours of child care and housework each day -eight times as much as their spouses. Thanks to restrictive immigration laws, they cannot hire cheap help. A working mother cannot sponsor a foreign nanny for a visa, though it is not hard for a nightclub owner to get “entertainer” visas for young Filipinas in short skirts. That says something about the lawmakers’ priorities. And it helps explain why women struggle to climb the career ladder: only 10% of the country's managers are female, compared with 46% in America.

Firms are careful to recycle paper but careless about wasting female talent. Some 66% of highly educated women who quit their jobs say they would not have done so if their employers had allowed flexible working arrangements. The vast majority (77%) of women who take time off work want to return. But only 43% find a job, compared with 73% in America. Of those who do go back to work, 44% are paid less than they were before they took time off, and 40% have to accept less responsibility or a less prestigious title. Goldman Sachs estimates that if the country made better use of its educated women, it would add 8.2m brains to the workforce and expand the economy by 15% - equivalent to about twice the size of the country’s motor industry.

What can be done? For women, the best bet is to work for a foreign company. Two-thirds of university-educated  women see European or American firms as more female-friendly than domestic ones. Foreign firms see a wealth of undervalued clever women and make a point of hiring them. One woman who switched from a domestic bank to a foreign one marvelled that: “The women here have opinions. They talk back. They are direct.”

The firms that make the best use of female talent are often those where women can find sponsors. Most of the women interviewed for the study by Ms Hewlett and Ms Sherbin who got back on the career track after time off did so because a manager remembered how good they were and lobbied for them to be rehired. Eiko, one of the women interviewed, felt pressure from her male colleagues to quit when she became pregnant and announced that she was leaving to do an MBA. Her clear-sighted boss realised that this was not what she really wanted to do. He suggested leaving the area and working at another branch with a more supportive atmosphere. Eiko transferred to a branch in Hong Kong, where career women are admired and nannies are cheap.

K4E Note: The Land of Wasted Talent in this article is actually Japan but, apart from the specifc statistics and quotes, it could just as easily be about South Korea.  The study by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Laura Sherbin of the Centre for Work-Life Policy is actually entitled “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Japan.” To read the orginal article in its entirely, click on Source below.


Source: Economist,  5 November 2011

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