Women's work patterns and the M-shaped curve

The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare released its March 27, 2001 edition, "White Paper on Women's Labor (Actual Status of Working Women)."

The White Paper first identified the number of full-time employees in 2001. As a result of the growing number of workers becoming non-regular employees, the number of male workers fell by 150,000 to a total of 32.01 million. In contrast, the number of female workers continued to increase by 280,000 to a total of 21.68 million, accounting for 40.4% of the total number of workers in Japan.

Generally speaking, Japanese women leave employment after either getting married or having children, then return to the workforce once they finish raising their children, after their children reach a certain age, or after they feel secure about leaving their children and going back to work. This work pattern results in a labor force participation rate (population of workers accounted for in the population of people aged 15 and older) that resembles the letter "M." The White Paper for 2001 focused on the "bottom" years of the letter M, and attempted to analyze them. Compared with ten years ago, the labor force participation rate of women in the 25- to 29-year age group and the 30- to 34-year age group increased by 7.9 and 5.9 percentage points, respectively. As a result, the bottom of the M-shaped curve became shorter, indicating the continuing tendency for the letter M to have a gentler, flatter curve. The fact that women in their early 30s make up the bottom of the letter M reflects the recent tendency for women to marry and bear children later in life.

Moreover, the White Paper showed that men in their 30s constituted a group whose members worked the longest hours, with over half of such men working more than 49 hours a week, and about 23% working more than 60 hours a week. The Paper revealed the fact that these men feel happiest when they are "spending time with their family at home" (cited by 54.4% of the men) rather than when they are "concentrating hard on work" (42.1%). It also revealed that very few, if any, men took childcare leave from work (the most frequently cited reason for not taking childcare leave despite the existence of such a system was that "the general ambience of the workplace made it difficult to apply for childcare leave," cited by 43.0% of the respondents). On the other hand, although the labor force participation rate of women in their early 30s was 57.1%, as many as 24.4%, currently unemployed, would want to work if circumstances allowed them to raise their family at the same time. If these "latent workers" were included, 81.5% of the women in this age group were working or wanted to work. These figures clearly show the large differences between, and the dilemma faced by, men and women in their 30s during the child-raising stage.

The share of women who continued to work after giving birth was the lowest (13.7% of the total employees) in large-scale companies employing 1,000 people or more. It was the highest (50.4%) in government and municipal offices, followed by small-scale companies with between 1 and 9 employees. By type of work, clerical jobs showed the lowest share (19.5%) of women continuing to work after giving birth. It is thus interesting to note that the White Paper found "the choices made by women with respect to type of job and company" to be one of the problems. Ironically, major companies and clerical work remain extremely popular among job-hunting women.