Japan has a less fluid workforce than many Western countries, because employees tend to stay loyal to one company for life. That puts women at a disadvantage because they tend to take time off to have children and are then consigned to lower-rung jobs, analysts say. Sixty percent of working women quit after their first child is born.
The Geneva-based World Economic Forum ranked Japan 105th in this year's Global Gender Gap Report, which measures economic equality and political participation. Iceland was No. 1, followed by the Scandinavian nations. Germany was 14th and the U.S. 23rd.
Women make up 3.9 percent of board members of listed Japanese companies, versus 12 percent in the U.S. and 18 percent in France, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"Most major companies are not serious about utilizing the talent of women," said Junko Fukasawa, a senior managing director at Tokyo job-referral company Pasona Group, which is unusual in having three women on its 11-member board. "They are very male-dominated."
When Fukasawa meets people from other companies, they often turn first to her male underlings to exchange business cards, and are surprised to learn later that she is the boss. People on the phone have demanded to speak with a man, and she has had to tell them she is in charge, she said.
Under Fukasawa's leadership at human resources, Pasona has set up counseling for women executives and mentor programs. Male employees are encouraged to take paternity leave, dubbed a "hello baby vacation." Pasona has been deluged with queries from other companies trying to tackle Abe's initiative, and turned the counseling on such requests into a new business.
One factor that may help women is demographics.
Japan's birth rate is so low that the world's third-largest economy is running out of workers. Kathy Matsui, an analyst at Goldman Sachs Japan who invented the term "womenomics" to describe how working women can lift an economy, projects Japan's workforce would expand by 8.2 million people if the gender gap were closed, boosting gross domestic product by up to 15 percent.