Shinzo Abe during a reception for the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo symposium on September 12, 2014. Photo: AFP/Tomohiro Ohsumi
Shinzo Abe during a reception for the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo symposium on September 12, 2014. Photo: AFP/Tomohiro Ohsumi

If we men have learned anything in this #MeToo era, it is to be better listeners. That’s especially true of the patriarchs running the world’s biggest economies.

Take Shinzo Abe, who’s been promising for nearly six years now to make Japan “a society where women can shine.” That seemed more of a reach than ever on Tuesday, when the prime minister unveiled his new cabinet: 19 men, one woman. Remarkably, that is an even worse ratio that the previous cabinet – which boasted a grand total of two.

Had Abe listened to women, he’d understand the stark need for female role models in Japan.

Goldman Sachs economist Kathy Matsui, who originally sold Abe on “womenomics” as a key to a revival, has championed the issue. So has Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, in her visits to Tokyo.

Add Seiko Noda, a former interior minister, to the list of those making the case for more trailblazers to inspire Japan’s female masses. Noda, it’s worth noting, is the female cabinet member Abe sent packing Tuesday.

But nearly six years on, the gender-equality portion of Abenomics has been more bust than boom. Not a single one of the Nikkei Stock Average’s 225 companies, for example, is run by a Japanese woman. There are still no women managers at 73% of Japanese companies. At listed ones, only 3.7% of the executives are women.

The conventional wisdom is that Abe’s womenomics scheme is stalling. This is wrong. In reality, it still hasn’t left the advertising stage. And that does much to explain why Japan’s economy is vulnerable to stalling in the months ahead.

Abe’s team, remember, drastically scaled back its original pledge of 30% female managers by 2020. It has since halved its aspirations for the private sector and 7% for the public sector. More? A  2015 gender-equality law was passed with no penalties for not empowering women.

The force remains strong with the patriarchy. The gray-haired men who control Japan have little incentive to diversify leadership without pressure from the ground up – or in backroom meetings. At present, only 9.8% of Diet members are women, which puts Japan behind Saudi Arabia in terms of female political power.

And for all the spin about womenomics, Tokyo’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index has worsened precipitously on Abe’s watch – from 101 in 2012 to an all-time worst 114th.

The metrics Team Abe tout as evidence of “success” include an increase in the female labor participation rate. And sure enough, it’s risen from 46% in 2012 to about 50% as a shrinking and aging population depletes the workforce.

The trouble is this. About two-thirds of “non-regular” jobs go to women. These gigs pay less than regular ones, offer fewer benefits and come with negligible job security.

So, in fact, the ranks of women entering the labor force may be depressing wages nationally rather than revitalizing the economy.

Tokyo’s gender imbalance woes are a microcosm of why Abenomics hasn’t made it out of second gear; Abe’s bold spin actually covers half-hearted measures that lack teeth.

That’s unfortunate. Abe had a stellar opportunity to better utilize the other half of the labor force. All related research from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the WEF show nations that champion gender parity are the more innovative, productive and prosperous.

As Matsui of Goldman Sachs calculates, Japan’s gross domestic product would be 15 percentage points bigger if female labor participation approached that of men – 80%. In other words, empowering women is the lowest of low-hanging fruit for revitalizing the economy.

Imagine where the world’s third-biggest economy might be if Abe had rolled up his sleeves in 2012. If he’d added mandates or quotas to elevate more women into executive suites, offered tax incentives to gender-progressive companies or hired a few more women in his cabinet, Japanese growth might be far higher.

Sexism runs deep in tradition-bound Japan. Look no further than news last month that prestigious Tokyo Medical University was busted cheating women out of their chance to train as doctors. It literally manipulated tests scores to load classes with men.

That, too, is a microcosm of the old boy’s club ethos that pervades the power structure. One that Japanese men, including Abe it seems, are determined to preserve.

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