image sourceYumiko Suzukiimage captionYumiko Suzuki spent seven years at home raising her children before returning to work

There are plenty of smart, educated women in Japan who could be driving the country out of its current economic slump to a stunning pandemic recovery.

But the country's rigid hiring system – and male-dominated leadership – remain a huge hurdle, blocking women from the best-paid jobs.

The country risks becoming a nation of bored housewives with university degrees, warn critics.

Japan's own deadline to significantly increase the number of women in leadership roles by 2020, quietly came and went at the end of last year without even getting close to its target.

Known as "Womenomics" and announced with great fanfare, Shinzo Abe's policy to create a "Japan in which women can shine" has largely failed. And not just because of Covid-19.

Today, there is just one woman for every 10 men in parliament, while fewer than 15% of senior private sector roles are held by women – half the original 2020 goal.

image sourceGetty Imagesimage captionShinzo Abe's talked about creating a "Japan in which women can shine"

Former prime minister Mr Abe still claims the policy was a success: there are now more women than ever working. But what kind of work are these highly-educated women doing?

Critics believe his policy had little to do with creating social change – allowing women to flourish at work – and more to do with an acute need for workers. Japan's working-age population has been rapidly shrinking since the 1990s.

For decades, about 60% of women quit paid work after their first child. A mother looking after her kids full time – because her husband's income could support the entire family – was traditionally seen as a privilege.

But as the Womenomics policy was brought in, mothers were already starting to return to work as their family incomes dwindled.

Just 42.1% quit in 2019, pushing up labour market participation rates to 70.9% for women aged 15-64, rising to 77.7% in the 25-44 age category, government figures show.

To support this shift the government launched campaigns to eliminate childcare waiting lists. It also pressured large companies to have at least one female executive. But there were no financial incentives, or penalties for failing to take action.

image sourceGetty Imagesimage captionJapanese business women in Tokyo's central business district

Consequently many women are stuck in part-time or dead-end roles. On average, a Japanese woman's income is over 40% lower than that of a man, says the World Economic Forum.

Returning to work

More than half of Japanese women join the workforce with a university degree, almost the same number as men. But once you leave a full-time job, it is nearly impossible to return to your original career after a period of leave.

"If you want to go back to work, you'll have to look for a job at a supermarket – somewhere a student would get a part-time job," says Yumiko Suzuki who works as a career consultant at Warc Agent.

Fifteen years ago, Ms Suzuki also chose to ditch paid work and become a housewife – a decision she didn't take lightly.

Her story is fairly typical. After university, she worked just as hard as her male colleagues – which meant overtime, often missing the last train home, just to prove herself.

image sourceYumiko Suzukiimage captionYumiko Suzuki now helps other women restart their careers

But when she met her husband, who worked at the same company, they realised that to have a family one of them would have to give up their career.

These days more working mothers are given an option to work shorter or flexible, hours, something not available when she left in 2006.

"Both of us were working around the clock. We knew we couldn't start a family that way," she adds.

But after seven years as a stay-at-home mother raising two children, Ms Suzuki tried to re-join the workforce.

It was a shock when she realised her time at home was seen as "a blank" on her CV. She couldn't even get an interview.

In the end, she had to gain three professional certificates before finally being offered a full-time job at a start-up. She now helps other women restart their careers.

image sourceGetty Imagesimage captionThe crux of the problem is Japan's rigid hiring practices and the lifetime employment system set up to rebuild the economy after 1945Funding gap

The problem lies in Japan's rigid hiring practices. The lifetime employment system created to rebuild the economy after World War Two is not strictly speaking the norm, but major companies continue to employ new graduates each spring and offer them a job for life.

And if you miss out on this, it can be very difficult to then apply for another job the following year.

Having any gap on your CV is also frowned upon by large companies because they still use a seniority-based evaluation system: the older you get, the further your career progresses, regardless of ability.

Kathy Matsui, who coined the term Womenomics while at investment bank Goldman Sachs, says "the country is so short of talent, we are assessing the whole system of time-based evaluation".

She hopes a sea-change in hiring practices is finally happening. She says it is being driven by an exodus of bright young workers who are no longer choosing to work for well-known firms which expect you "to wait for 30 years to become a manager".

image sourceGetty Imagesimage captionKathy Matsui says Japanese firms face a labour shortage, so must widen their search for talent

The start-up world, which she joined after leaving Goldman Sachs to launch a venture capital fund called MPower Partners Fund, operates very differently.

"These new companies are trying to tap into the talent pool, not just women but also older workers. There's not enough people to do the jobs that need to be done, so if you refuse to change – you would lose in that war for talent."

Driving change

Cynthia Usui, country manager for hotel group LOF Hotel, agrees. Her firm is unusual, actively hiring ex-housewives, single mothers and others who often struggle to get jobs at traditional companies.

"I don't think companies have a choice. You will have to have a team that is as diverse as the one we have in order to succeed."

For 17 years, Ms Usui herself was a stay-at-home-mum. She restarted work at 47 – and her first job was in her daughter's school canteen.

"The government spends a lot of money reskilling Japanese males in their 50s and 60s" through so-called silver human resources centres, she adds.

"I would like to say to the government: you should be spending the same amount of money on the women who have been housewives and are trying to get back to work."

For Ms Matsui, it is frustrating that many don't understand that Womenomics could mean better financial performance for industry and higher economic growth for Japan.

"People still regard the topic in the realm of human rights or equality, which of course it is, but it doesn't appeal to everybody," she adds.

Japanese firms have so far been reluctant to publicly commit to increasing the number of women in their workforces.

But in the end, drive for change could come from multinationals like Ms Matsui's former employer, Goldman Sachs, which are more active.

It has a goal of gender parity when hiring graduates, and when it struggled to find suitably qualified female candidates for entry-level engineering positions started coding workshops.