Japan’s Top Banks Pay Women About Half of What Men Earn

Women working for Japan’s top banks earn little more than half the amount of their male colleagues in a stark example of the country’s entrenched gender divide.

(Bloomberg) — Women working for Japan’s top banks earn little more than half the amount of their male colleagues in a stark example of the country’s entrenched gender divide.

While Japan has a relatively high labor participation rate for women, many of the positions they occupy are part-time and have little prospect of better pay or career development. That point was reiterated Monday by Claudia Goldin, who the same day won the Nobel Prize in economics for her research into the factors behind the pay and employment gaps between men and women, in comments picked up by Japanese media.

Female workers earned on average 54.9% of what male workers were paid at the five largest banks in the benchmark Topix index, according to their latest annual statements. The figure came to light after Japan made gender pay gap disclosure mandatory from last year.

Overall, Japan has one of the worst gender pay gaps among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with the banking sector among the worst offenders, according to an analysis of 2,800 companies by advisory firm WTW and others.

Japan’s ingrained gender norms have resulted in female representation in positions of power in business or in politics significantly lagging other advanced economies. Japan comes 125th out of 146 countries, doing particularly badly in economic participation and political empowerment, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 gender gap report.

Experts say that more transparency by itself is unlikely to bring pay between the genders to parity in Japan.

“If it’s just disclosure it’s almost meaningless,” said Yumiko Murao, an associate professor specializing in labor markets and gender at Toyo University. She cited past disclosure of the numbers for women in leadership positions as a move that failed to bring about major change. “Firms have to analyze the data, make concrete plans for improvement, execute them and check progress.” 

The banks said that women have much lower pay largely because they have less representation in the firms’ managerial ranks. They also have a tendency to take roles that are paid less in Japanese companies’ two-track hiring system for regular workers.

One track, still largely populated by men, is paid far more and given greater responsibility, but requires long hours and carries the risk of sudden relocation to different parts of Japan. The other track, almost entirely staffed by women, is paid far less, but carries less responsibility and generally allows workers to remain in the same location.

Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. said the two-track system has been a major factor behind the gap, while pointing out that it scrapped the structure in January 2020 and is making efforts to bring more women into managerial roles. Mizuho Bank Ltd. also cited the two-track system as a reason behind its pay gap, saying that men take on far more of the career-track roles that require moving across the country and are paid more as a result.

The dearth of female managers is a trend seen across Japanese businesses beyond the financial sector. Only 12% of managerial positions are taken by women, according to a labor ministry survey for the year ended March 2022. The same survey showed that in about 40% of firms in Japan, only men were hired into career-track roles.

“This is the case with banks, too. Women are much more likely to be hired into roles that have a clearly flatter wage growth curve compared to men,” said Nobuko Nagase, a professor of labor economics at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo. “Even if they’re hired into roles where the wage growth curve is steeper, they’re still promoted at a slower pace.”

For Japan’s gender wage gap disclosure to really have an impact, it needs more teeth, the experts say.

Iceland is one example. It enacted legislation in 2018 demanding “equal pay, equal value,” meaning positions with comparable skills, hours and intensity must be paid the same, regardless of the industry or the job. Strict enforcement of that measure contributed to the country halving its gender pay gap in the past decade.

Japan has had similar rules since 2020 for large corporates and 2021 for smaller businesses, but the impact from those changes has been much more limited. In Iceland, the law forces companies with 25 employees or more to prove they don’t discriminate on gender, sexuality or ethnicity lines — or face fines of 50,000 kronur ($360) a day.

Japan’s banks say they are making efforts to improve the situation. Both Mizuho Bank and MUFG Bank Ltd. also plan to get rid of the two-track hiring system for regular workers. MUFG Bank says it has a goal of getting women to fill 27.5% of managerial positions this fiscal year, and boost the number further toward 2030.

Still, Toyo University’s Murao said more needs to be done. 

“Japan’s population is going to keep shrinking from here,” meaning the country can’t leave half its population unable to fully work, or under compensated for work they’re already doing, she said. “Politics also needs to consider how to make a more gender-equal society.” 

–With assistance from Takashi Umekawa.

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