Rich but Disadvantaged: The Tale of Women in Japan & Switzerland

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 19. June 2019

The 2018 World Wealth Report by Paris-based Capgemini Consulting ranked Japan and Switzerland as rich and prosperous. Nearly 1 in 20 Swiss was a millionaire. There were more than 3 million people in Japan having a minimum of a million US dollar, the second highest after the US.  

Imagine living in these two countries: services are very good; societies are well-organised; safety is top-notch; and the two countries project flattering (but contradictory) global images…

Yet, being prosperous and highly developed isn’t as such meaningful. The reason is simple: half of the population in Japan and Switzerland – that is, women – cannot reach their full potential because they’re disadvantaged and excluded.   

It’s been a man’s world in Japan and Switzerland – for long   

Good performance in gender equality doesn’t always connect with the level of economic development. Economic performance is more than statistics (GDP). Simply adding women into economic performance is misleading. In both countries, women don’t control over economic resources and they earn less than men, as they’re are hired into low-skilled, low-productivity positions.

Let me cite three examples.

Pay gap:  is about the difference between average male and female earnings who are engaged in paid employment. Despite some positive measures in both countries, pay gaps between women and men are entrenched. The average percentage of the pay gap for member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is 13.8%. Japan, with 24.5%, sits at the bottom three with Korea and Estonia while for Switzerland, it is 15%. In both countries the gender pay gap increases with age.   

Management positions: one factor that contributes to the pay gap is gender stereotyping of jobs. Positions are classified as “male” or “female” roles. Also, most men occupy high management positions. Three-quarters of Japanese companies have no female senior executives. Japan is ranked 110th in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. As national growth strategy, the country is trying to increase gender diversity in the workforce to 30% by 2020. In Switzerland also it’s men who run the show – women occupy only 9% of management board or leading positions. While working for a multinational company in Japan, I experienced first hand that employers’ subconscious plays a role when hiring women for particular roles and full-time positions.

Representation of women: Swiss women occupy only one-third of seats in the Swiss parliament. That’s, out of the 200 seats, there’re 65 women members. The picture is disappointing for Japan – out of the 463 seats, women occupy a meagre 47 seats (10%). Women representation is a sign of women empowerment. Melchior Lengsfeld, CEO of Helvetas, points out that “don’t expect bold measures to reduce the pay difference as long as we do not have more women in politics.”

From lamenting to actions

Two women-led protests have been taking place recently in Japan and Switzerland. Yumi Ishikawa, a writer and an actress in Japan, ignited a protest about having to wear heels in workplaces. The #KuToo movement, about strict dress codes imposed by employers, underlies strong and important gender stereotypes in Japanese workplace – recruitment, learning opportunities and promotion. Thousands of women across Switzerland also went on a strike for their rights on 14 June 2019. They demanded “more time, more money, more respect”.

While I applaud such movements, the question of “but then, what next?” bothers me. 

Despite the huge challenges, I’m confident that it’s possible to achieve better and broader gender equality. I’m basing my optimism on what has already happened even though the positive gains have been pockets of progress (“islands of success”) – slow and small.

However, for faster and deeper results, we need to carefully understand and consistently challenge the dynamics of power at different levels. There’s no doubt that gender and power are fundamentally linked.

“Power over”: policy and legal instruments

To challenge institutionalised and legitimised exclusion in policy making and laws, we need to think and work politically. Different formal legislations control or constrain women. Informal norms also influence behaviours and actions. That’s why political participation is critical. More women need to enter politics and influence legislations and norms. An example is the 2018 US midterm elections that led to historic wins for women, “reshaping America’s leadership”. There’s evidence that legislatures with a higher share of women on average tend to support health, education and social welfare spending at the expense of defence spending.

“Power with”: collective action

To make a difference, social mobilisation and alliance building matter. As Jane Carter argues, “women have to act. We cannot let others act for us”. It’s true that agency and organisation have been central and constant themes in women’s and gender history. Yet, this must happen in focused and persistent manner to influence gender identities and public policy formation. It’s all about effective and sustainable ways of framing issues and messaging (e.g. defining a problem).

“Power to”: shaping social relations

Gender is about women and men. It goes without saying that gender equality starts at home and from communities — each of us has the role to play, as husbands, fathers, brothers... Complex networks of social norms are often at play. Understanding how social norms work and navigating them carefully for effectively influencing positive changes is highly important. It’s about engaging trusted “messengers” and “champions”. This requires identification common interest and coordinated action for common objectives.

“Power within”: women as individuals

Better results can be achieved when each woman has the skills and knowledge to make her own effective choices and to transform these into desired outcomes. Women aren’t homogeneous, and the degree of gender equality is also determined by level of exclusion, availability of opportunities and priorities and needs of individual women. As a case in point, the strike in Switzerland on 14 June wasn’t by Swiss women only, but by all walks of women in Switzerland. During the strike in Bern, I heard speeches by migrant women who’re often absent (‘invisible) in the discussion about equality.

To conclude, gender equality doesn’t necessarily come because a country is advanced or rich. It’s also about improving human capital and increasing the voice (agency) of women to participate meaningfully and achieve social and political inclusion.

Additional sources


Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies