Book Review

Too Few Women at the Top by Kumiko Nemoto

Ithaca NY, ILR Press, 2016, 296p.

Too Few Women at the Top
is a must-read both for those interested in gender segregation in the workplace and those concerned with Japanese political economy. Kumiko Nemoto has succeeded in treating both issues in her book.

We can discern the broad first question addressed in Too Few Women at the Top from the book’s title: why do we find so few women in the highest management positions in Japanese companies, and why has their presence not increased much, despite globalization, growth, and democratization? Among affluent democracies, Japan is indeed one of the least gender-equal countries. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report shows that the situation has not changed since Nemoto’s book was released: the country is ranked 114 out of 144, with women ranked poorly in economic participation and opportunity, and even lower in political empowerment. Nemoto asks why, despite a certain degree of policy efforts and new laws, have there been few to no results? Among the various reasons she provides for this slow progress towards equality, the weight of tradition plays a preponderant role.

The questions Nemoto raises are of great theoretical import for sociologists and political economists as well as of practical significance: indeed, women’s segregation in management positions leads to management inefficiency and, ultimately, to weaker growth. In 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe affirmed that gender segregation in public and private sectors is a danger for long-term growth.

In researching her book, Nemoto conducted interviews with workers at five Japanese corporations (three financial and two cosmetics companies); her analysis, however, extends beyond the borders of Japan. The specific comparisons she makes with the processes of gender segregation in workplaces in the United States – conducted with a keen theoretical approach and strengthened by empirical findings – shed light on Western political economies as well.

While this kind of research is often instrumental, with more factual and policy-oriented ends, such as how to enable women to climb the corporate ladder, Nemoto’s book aims to comprehend the very nature of the gender segregation and its causes. By explaining why the situation is as it is, she is able to provide solid insights on how it functions.

In the second chapter (The Japanese Way of Change: Recasting Institutional Coordination, Sustaining Gender Inequality), the author contextualizes Japanese coordinated capitalism and demonstrates how this economic system and its evolution are responsible for the low number of women in high management positions. Chapter 3 (Sex Segregation in Five Japanese Companies) deals with methodology, clearly explaining Nemoto’s choice of companies for her fieldwork and examining the effects of legislation (women’s employment reforms) and of international economy on gender equality in Japanese companies. In chapter 4 (Women as Cheap Labor: Salaries, Promotions, Ghettos, and the Culture of Woman Blaming), she investigates the management of Japanese corporations and their cost-saving strategies that prevent women from making progress in the hierarchy and attaining leadership roles.

The author examines several practices, such as “seniority pay and promotion,” “lifelong employment,” “track hiring,” “household benefits,” and the fact that women are perceived as risky assets for a company, which leads them to be discarded by cost-saving strategies. Companies block women as non-career track workers or limited-term workers. The logics behind these strategies, which go back to the very beginning of Japanese post-war growth, are deeply engrained and difficult to counteract. In Chapter 5 (Production and Navigation of Gender Bias: Heroic Masculinity, Female Misogyny, and Queen Bees), Nemoto studies how both men and women alternately foster or change long-held gender stereotypes in Japanese companies. She shows, for instance, that while male employees may be archaically misogynic, female employees may legitimize sexual segregation by delegitimizing female managers under whom they work. Chapter 6 (Thwarted Ambitions and Sympathy: Long Working Hours, Sex Segregation, and the Price of Masculinity) addresses, among others, the theme of long hours – one of the main elements of the Japanese workplace that reinforces what Nemoto calls heroic masculinity. Male employees have more latitude to express their devotion to a corporation by working long hours. Now as in the past, long hours are a key component of Japanese economic growth, but they disadvantage women with family life imperatives that do not burden men. Nemoto submits that the view of women as less industrious, productive, and dynamic as men is still strongly embedded in Japanese mentality.

Since the Japanese seniority system requires women to work the same long hours as men in order to be competitive, yet does not offer them equal opportunities to reach management positions, it results in lower ambitions among women and has a massive impact on the overall observed segregation in workplace. In Chapter 7 (Obligatory Femininity and Sexual Harassment), the author demonstrates the impact of business institutions and organizations on segregation.

One of Nemoto’s most fascinating arguments follows on from that of American sociologist Herbert J. Gans, who showed poverty in America to be a state of affairs that serves the interests of higher social classes in both symbolic and economic terms[1]. Nemoto grounds her work in the idea that gender segregation served the political economic system of post-war Japan. For this reason, her book goes beyond the study of either gender segregation or political economy alone – it blends both approaches with great perspicacity, creating a deeper common understanding of both phenomena. For firms, gender segregation meant the availability of highly qualified yet cheap (female) labor, which saved on labor costs. For the State, it was a way to persuade women to stay at home and thus to bear part of the welfare effort, which would otherwise be the State’s responsibility. Due to the shared interests of the business sector and the State, there have been little to no incentives to revise these cost-saving strategies, condemning women to work low-paid jobs under (old) male management. These managers – often over the age of 70  – are generally not open to new ideas or receptive to societal change.

Ruggero Gambacurta-Scopello

[1] See Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All,” Social Policy July-August 1971, p. 20-24; The War against the Poor, 1995.


This article is taken from
SASE Winter Newsletter 17/18
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