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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #45: June 25, 2003

Gender Equality in Japanese Education: Part Three - How Gender Imbalances in Education Impede Women in the Workplace

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

In the parts One and Two of this series various gender-related issues in the Japanese higher education system were examined. In this article, some of the repercussions of that system on the workplace are outlined.

Besides making female junior college students less qualified than their male four-year university counterparts, the current higher education system also creates considerable workplace tensions between junior college graduates and female four-year university students. This is a direct result of the two-tiered, gender-segregated education system. The problem does not exist amongst men as the majority of male white collar employees are four-year university graduates. However, many large companies recruit women from both the university and junior college sectors. Since both categories of student are normally hired straight after graduation, this creates a situation in which junior college and female university graduates of similar age often have conflicting and unclear status relationships to each other. Even in the less ridged work environment of modern day Japan, this is a recipe for conflict.

In Japanese companies grade and rank are an especially important element in defining one's relationship to others. One's status is normally determined by age, years of service and educational achievement. For a male employee, recognizing superiors is normally a straight forward process as most enter the average white-collar company after having completed a course at a four-year university. However, for women the picture is much more complex. A junior college graduate would enter a company at about twenty years of age, while the average female university graduate would not do so until she reached about twenty-two or twenty-three. Thus a junior college graduate would usually have a longer period of company service than a female university entrant of the same age. This would normally mean that the junior college student should be the senior. However, many large companies determine pay and position on the level of education, so a female university graduate will often be paid more and ranked higher than her contemporary junior college counterpart. This makes confusing senior-junior (senpai-kohai) relationships between female employees. Men do not have to face this dilemma as there is no such schism in male education.

According to research by various scholars such as Yuko Ogasawara, tension and resentment between the two groups of graduates is commonplace. This educational based conflict can divide and impede women as they try to progress in their company. Thus, the current education system not only makes junior college students less academically qualified than their male colleagues, it also creates unnecessary tensions between women.

On the positive side, the situation is an improvement on the seventies and eighties, when most companies only employed junior colleges students and many had a policy of simply not hiring female university graduates at all. In fact, it was only after decades of legal battles and the eventual introduction of the Equal Employment Opportunities Law (EEOL) that female university graduates actually managed to get a proper foothold in many companies. Thus, the friction between the two types of graduate is a relatively new phenomenon, which should eventually disappear. The nineties can be considered as a transitional phase between females of differing educational backgrounds. As the number of female university graduates entering the employment market rapidly rose, these tensions increased.

The current workplace status conflicts can be traced directly to the present gender-imbalance in the education system. Therefore, the gradual elimination of the two-tiered education system will help strengthen female solidarity at work. The ever decreasing ranks of junior college students combined with the corresponding increase in the number of female four-year university graduates should eventually alleviate, if not entirely eliminate tensions in the workplace between the two groups. In the end, women will become as equally qualified as their male counterparts which should allow them to marshal their efforts more on competing with male colleagues rather than being locked into status battles with each other.

Other Articles in the Gender Equality in Japanese Education Series

Gender Equality in Japanese Education Part Two: The Development of the Two-year Women's Junior College System

Gender Equality in Japanese Education Part One: Male and Female Participation Rates in Higher Education

Book Reference

Ogasawara, Yuko (1998) Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender, and Work in Japanese Companies (Berkeley, University of California Press)

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