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10 Jul 2019

Kimonos & Hardhats: Japan’s ‘Womenomics’ campaign takes aim at women in construction

Kimonos & Hardhats: Japan’s ‘Womenomics’ campaign takes aim at women in construction


A declining workforce, sparse birth rates and an ageing population are just some of the problems confronting Japan in the 21st century. Since data gathering began in 1899, the Japanese government has cited the birthrate to be at a historic low. Japan's population has been in decline for a number of years with leading policymakers and experts beginning to speculate on its possible economic and social repercussions. 

Amongst the suggested policies to counteract the pressures of a workforce shortage is Prime Minister Abe’s “Womenomics” Campaign. The campaign seeks to raise female employment in Japan from 68% to 73% by the year 2020. In addition, a secondary agenda for the campaign includes the rapid integration of women into management positions, this would mean that by 2020 a third of all leadership positions occupied across the nation would be taken by female workers. 

The Japanese construction agency has proven to be a formidable foe when it comes to female integration in the workforce. An extremely male-dominated industry, a mere 3% of employees encompass the entirety of female representation of workers across the practice. Cultural gender biases have been voices as a major obstacle preventing Japanese women from entering the industry. Industry veterans such as Junko Komorita, chief executive of a small contractor called Zm’ken based in southwestern Japan have voiced her opinions on the unfortunate and harsh reality of women entering construction in Japan. 

"Japan’s construction industry still rejects the idea of women actually working on the ground...There are still plenty of men who don’t want to take orders from women." - Junko Komorita


Is change afoot?

Special programs advocating female involvement within the Japanese construction industry do exist in the form of Kensetsu Komachi, the company's name can be roughly translated into ‘builder belles’. The program has received backing from the Japanese Federation of Construction Contractors. Bound by a joint action plan, the campaign's aim is to double the quantity of female technological experts and skilled labourers working within the construction industry to 200,000+ by the end of this year. 

While these efforts represent a step in the correct direction, experts in the field have criticized the programme of not tackling the real issues that many seeking to work within the construction industry lament. Prone to spending long hours, infrequent work schedules, overtime, crunch periods, weekend jobs and immediate transfers across different parts of the country; climbing the corporate ladder to obtain a managerial position in Japan’s construction industry requires a precise combination of mental flexibility and physical endurance. Moreover, this labour-intensive schedule pairs poorly with the cultural expectations of women in Japan. Despite over 70% of females actively contributing to the nation's workforce, women are still expected to take on the extraneous pressures stemming from maintaining household chores and caring for children. 

Claims have surfaced that showcase the discrimination many of skilled female workers are receiving on the work-site. Examples included male workers to refusing to work alongside or follow directions assigned from female colleagues, clients that refuse them entrance to inspecting sites, complaints and demands being made with regards to a woman being sent to a ‘man’s’ job. As such, skilled women workers or engineers have found themselves isolated and subjected to discrimination in such an extensive industry. Even mega-sites harbouring hundreds and thousands of workers, female representation is scarce if not completely void. Since the 2015 launch, the Kentsetu Komachi has attributed to a 14% growth for women in construction, far from its original goal of doubling the figure. 

Most recently, the campaign received heavy criticism for its provision of female-only lavatory services and changing rooms. Much to the dismay of female workers, these facilities were adorned with pink and flowery decorations, glossing over the root issue of gender equality and enforcing false gendered stereotypes.  


Sluggish, but progress nonetheless: 

Alternative initiatives designed to balance the playing field for women and men harbouring a passion for construction do exist. Take Sekisui House, for example, one of Japan’s biggest homebuilders founded the Women’s College Program. Targeting female employees interested in learning and taking on managerial positions within the construction industry, the program is devised and overseen by a high profile female architect. 

Institutional change has also come in the form of large construction companies like Shimizu offering parental leave, family-oriented work hours and subsidised company from paying out from company funds. That being said, ground staff in Japan are normally not employed by big firms such as this, meaning that these laws are far from commonplace amongst the thousands of contractors located across the entirety of Japan that execute contracts and tenders being written up by larger corporations. 

Some construction companies have taken initiative over the situation and implemented their own solutions to try and ease the pressures associated with the long working hours of the construction industry. The Takenaka Corporation offered a children’s waiting room next to their construction site as a complementary service that proved to be immensely popular amongst male and female construction workers. 


The future of Japanese Women in Construction: 

While progress remains slow, change is inevitable and underway. Utilising a combination of top-down and bottom-up initiatives, women are slowly paving their way into the traditionally male-dominated construction industry. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics might provide the ideal backdrop for Japanese men to get comfortable with the sight of women dawning a construction helmet and work-boots on site. Especially since female star architect Zaha Hadid did most of the initial design work for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium before being suddenly cut for a cheaper but considerably related design. 

Moving forward, officials of the Japanese Construction Ministry Hiroki Watanabe stated that public outreach efforts designed to increase workplace gender diversity must be more focused and approachable. Tasked with increasing female participation in the industry, Mrs Watanabe stressed that the focus of female-oriented initiatives should be to make it easier for both women and men to work. Examples of this include ensuring that companies that are awarded public-works projects hire women, booking consultants to conduct seminars for construction executives and paying close attention to survey feedback from current female workers.

Interested in developments for Women in Construction? Check out our Women in Construction Summit taking place at Sydney Build Expo 2020