Work-Life Balance in the Japanese Information and Communication Technology Industry: Who Thwarts Female Workers’ Career Development?

Ryoko Asai and Kiyoshi Murata


In April 1986, the Law concerning Equal Opportunity and Treatment between Men and Women in Employment went into force in Japan. Thirteen years later, the Basic Law for a Gender-equal Society was enforced. Both of the laws aim at enhancing to construct a gender-equal society and prohibiting gender segregation in workplaces. Furthermore, the Japanese government has recently adopted policies to promote work-life balance in order to encourage women to continue their careers after marriage or childbirth. However, the effectiveness of these policies has been deteriorated due to the Japanese culture with respect to “work”. This circumstance can typically be observed in the Japanese information and communication technology (ICT) industry. In this study, we examine gender issues in the Japanese ICT industry focused on its masculine workplace culture and practices.

The conventional work-life style had established during the Japanese high economic growth period (1955 – 1973); men devote themselves into their work while sacrificing own personal life for their family. On the other hand, women are considered as candidates for brides and housewives in the company, and two or three years later after finding employment women marry as a fulltime housewife taking care of her family. Additionally, the unmarried woman past their marriageable years and the two income household were the deviation of gender role. Therefore, they were dogged with negative image based on gender bias and gender norms.

However, Japan has experienced the economic depression in 1990’s, and the depression has raised decrease in average household income. Furthermore, Japan has faced expected labour shortages due to the declining birthrate and the aging population. These social situations have enhanced the social awareness that women should continue to work after marriage and/or maternity leave. And the laws which support and protect working women has enforced one after another, Japan no longer have any discriminatory treatment of women or men systematically. Under these circumstances, female full-time workers tend to be required to have an equal workload to males without ridding themselves of housework at all.

Now women play a more active role and work in the every industry. Especially the ICT industry has absorbed working women, because it has consistently grown and is expected to continue to create job opportunities even in the current recession. Job opportunities provided steadily by the Japanese ICT industry would be helpful for women who eager to develop their career as well as for construction of a gender-equal society. The fact that ICT workers are expected to be professionals due to their social influence may suggest that increase in employment in the industry is advantageous to improvement of social status of women. Whereas, the industry has faced the pressure for significant cost-cutting and a shortened system development period in the fiercely competitive, globalised market and, thus, the working environment of the Japanese ICT industry has become severe.

Given ICT and the Internet facilitate gender equality in workplaces as the government alleged, the Japanese ICT industry is considered as one of the most progressive gender equal workplace. However, in actuality, the industry is known as a typical masculine one where employees experience physically demanding and prolonged work. Additionally, the industry is notorious for its poor working conditions and bad business practices such as multi-tier subcontract in information system development. Although the industry provides employment opportunities, workers are forced to accept severe working conditions straying far from work-life balanced life. In order to examine in detail, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 10 female workers in the Japanese ICT industry. The survey revealed how working women in the Japanese ICT industry face severe working conditions; for example, some of them stayed workplace all night long, in such situation they slept with cardboard futon and newspaper blanket on a floor next to male workers. And they considered their work as physical work, not as intellectual work, and that the level of pay was inadequate to compensate for their workload.

However, all of them recognised that marriage was never an obstacle and that working conditions of them were the same in men and women. That is, though they placed themselves in severe working conditions, they didn’t feel particular difference or inequality between sexes in their companies. Based on the survey, we found several gender issues in the Japanese ICT industry. First, both male and female workers suffer off-balance between work and life. Secondly, equal opportunity in a workplace seems to cause increased workload for women. Actually, women are unconsciously forced to accept that housework and child-rearing are their responsibility. Thirdly, law enforcement to enhance a gender equal society has lowered employers’ incentive to hire women. Even though the original aim of the law is to address the problem of low fertility in Japan. Employers recognize that hiring female employees is costly.

Especially, the most serious issue in the Japanese ICT industry exists in the context where the employees interviewed didn’t recognise the existence of the gender issues at all. They have been accustomed to the male-dominated working environment. Therefore working women inevitably come to the crossroad in developing their career. In order to resolve gender issues, we could devise several policy recommendations. At first, social support for child-raising is necessary. For example public support for child raising will reduce workload of female ICT workers. Secondly, the reduction in corporate taxes for companies addressing work-life balance of their employees is another way of supporting working mothers. Furthermore, networking among female ICT workers across companies may be useful because this would clarify a role model of female ICT workers and they could enjoy peer consultation.

However, we currently face another gender issues which run counter the efforts of improving social status of working women. Namely, Japan has new social trends with an increasing number of women those want to become a full-time housewife, particularly common in women of the younger generation. And this social phenomenon obscures women’s role model which keep developing own career than ever before. Now we need to review the work-life balance not only from economic perspectives but also from gender perspectives.