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In Asia, the pandemic has thrown some of the best-laid plans for gender parity off course. In other ways, it provided an unexpected chance for women to perform under pressure.   © Illustration by Priyanka Karyekar
The Big Story

Success and suffering: The pandemic's burden on working women

In Japan, Philippines and more, some flourish while others fall further behind

Nikkei staff writers | East Asia

TOKYO -- Shared tragedy is often seen as a great equalizer. But the coronavirus pandemic has only emphasized the yawning gap between the fortunate and the left-behind.

Technology adoption has barreled into the future at warp speed, assuring a comfortable lockdown for the upper tiers of society -- but an increasingly pressured underclass is carrying the burden of our relentlessly online existence. And as office life has given in to flexibility (a gift for those bound by Asia's rigid work cultures), others have been left at the mercy of poor internet connections and piling household responsibilities -- not to mention the stifling claustrophobia, and even the dangers, of isolation at home.

The pandemic has had a predictable impact on the gender gap: Women have lost more than men, in aggregate. More women have lost jobs than men, more women have been kept busy at home than men, more women have suffered domestic abuse than men. The United Nations Foundation refers to the latter as the "shadow pandemic," and consultancy McKinsey estimated in a report last year a $1 trillion lag in global GDP growth by 2030 if no action were taken on gender parity, improving to a $8 trillion bump if change was pursued after the pandemic (for them, sometime in 2024).

Real-world realities for women have also split along the same lines. Pandemic constraints have seen some already powerful women excel -- heads of state like Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen and New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern -- and others suffer more than their male counterparts.

There are "silver linings" to celebrate about the past year of drastic change, but these are mostly available to a privileged few. Ahead of International Women's Day at Nikkei, we take a look at the pandemic through the prism of a gender gap that is widening, economically, socially and politically. -- SARAH HILTON and CHARLES CLOVER

Japan: Womenomics by the wayside

TOKYO -- Akiko, a 25-year-old barber, didn't want to quit her job. She had spent five years at a slick Tokyo salon, pulling herself up the ranks from apprentice to trainer.

By the final weeks of 2020, though, her manager was calling her in for hour after hour of meetings, pressuring her to resign. The salon had come under financial strain with Japan's first state of emergency in April -- a situation that worsened sharply toward the end of the year.

"My boss told me I was young and had no family to feed. My colleagues do. So, my leaving was the best option for all of them," Akiko, not her real name, told Nikkei. In the weeks after leaving, she has struggled to sleep and eat.

The story, and its expectations of sacrifice and employee hierarchy, is not uncommon in coronavirus-era Japan.

People wait outside a barber shop in Tokyo after the Japanese government lifted the state of emergency last May.   © Reuters

"The pandemic was especially a blow to women," said Satoshi Ibaraki, a member of Tokyo-based labor union General Support Union. Women account for the majority of employees in Japan's service and caregiving industries, and often also bear the burden of unpaid domestic work, said Ibaraki.

Even before the coronavirus brought Japan's gender gap under a harsh spotlight, the country was notoriously unequal by global standards. The World Economic Forum's 2020 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Japan 121st out of 153 countries, sandwiched between the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. A longstanding target to raise the percentage of women in management positions to 30% by 2020 was found last year to have fallen drastically short, standing at only 7.8%, according to a survey of 17,000 companies by research company Teikoku Databank.

This is not the bright future envisioned by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who in 2012 championed his womenomics policy as a neat solution for both the country's labor shortage and deeper economic malaise. If women participated equally in the workforce, his government's thinking went, they would provide labor while conquering outdated gender stereotypes, and their income would translate into more purchasing power.

Female employment did rise. Women now enter the workforce at a rate of 71%, only just short of Abe's target of 73% by 2020. But as of 2020, more than half were employed part time -- a disadvantage in Japan, where full-time status, with perks like health care and pensions, is the gold standard.

Fast forward eight years later, and "they were the first to be fired amid the pandemic," said Shin Ki-young, professor of gender studies at Tokyo's Ochanomizu University.

"Abenomics lacked drastic change, such as affirmative action, to further women's empowerment," said BNP Paribas chief Japan economist Ryutaro Kono. "The labor supply of housewives only helped solve the imminent labor shortage. As a result, it only encouraged low-wage labor."

Some point to the halfhearted pursuit of womenomics as a symptom of low female representation in politics. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, female members account only for 10% of parliament -- the lowest among the Group of Seven, and lagging other Asian countries such as China (25%), South Korea (17%), and Singapore (24%).

"Japan's democracy is distorted and often lacks the perspective of women," Tomomi Inada, a lawmaker in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told Nikkei.

The bluntly-spoken former defense minister -- no stranger herself to controversy -- believes Japan needs a gender quota to increase female representation. She recently battled backlash from her own party to allow unmarried single-parent families access to certain tax deductions, something that previously only covered the widowed or divorced.

As Japan's pandemic life orbits ever more closely around the home, so might the chances of womenomics ever regaining ground. Zhou Yanfei, senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, said that a fairer division of housework between men and women is key if the 30% target for women in management is to be achieved.

"Women are still considered to bear the brunt of child care and housework, while companies often ask male employees to work long hours and accept frequent transfers," said Zhou. "It's also important to change how men work to increase female management." -- RURIKA IMAHASHI

Japan: A prime ministerial contender

TOKYO -- When Seiko Noda stepped into national politics at the age of 32, it felt like a sumo ring, she said -- the kind of hallowed place only accessible by males. At the Diet, Noda had to lobby her peers to build a women's bathroom, which they did by refurbishing a part of the men's.

"When I was a freshman, [former prime minister Noboru] Takeshita told me that Nagatacho was an awful place for women," Noda told Nikkei, referring to the political power center of Tokyo. "He told me, 'They say that women easily get emotional, so being logical helps you fight against it.' That's why I've always held opinions based on data and law."

Yes Prime Minister: Seiko Noda, a powerful Japanese lawmaker, poses for photos in Tokyo last month. (Photo by Yuki Kohara) 

Noda's name surfaces in speculation about Japan's future leaders -- a debate that grows ever more heated as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government's approval ratings continue to slump. She herself has been outspoken about aiming to become Japan's first female prime minister. But Noda faces pushback from LDP colleagues, who say she has only advocated for women's policies.

"There is only people's policy," she said. "It's unfair that if a male lawmaker does something, it is not called a men's policy."

A rare high-profile female politician, Noda has seen a turbulent 28-year career. At the age of 37, she was appointed minister of posts and telecommunications in 1998, under the government of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, becoming the youngest-ever postwar cabinet minister. Ousted from the LDP in 2005 over her opposition to postal privatization, she returned in 2006 and began to actively speak about fertility, going public with her attempts to conceive a child via a donated egg, and publishing multiple books on her experience -- a largely taboo subject.

More recently, the political current has flowed in the same direction: Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has mulled subsidies for fertility treatments, designed to boost Japan's languishing birth rate.

Noda is raising a son with disabilities. Based on her own experience, she stresses the importance of policies that create a society that is fair to all.

She is often criticized for being abrasive, but in interviews Noda gives the impression of someone unafraid to speak candidly in her own words. The Japanese public are unaccustomed to standing up for their own rights, she told Nikkei, and the pandemic is the first unifying tragedy to sweep Japan from north to south.

The mere fact of working from home was something imagined to be years away, she remarked. "The opportunity [for change] that comes after the crisis will be huge," Noda said. -- RURIKA IMAHASHI

Philippines: a 'highly feminized' economy

TOKYO -- When the coronavirus forced the Filipino model and actor Isabelle Daza to relocate with her family to Hong Kong last year, there was no question that her son's nannies would join them from Manila. The household workers were indispensable to Daza, who manages four growing businesses while caring for her child.

Social Influencer: Isabelle Daza's Instagram page. (Photo by Yuki Kohara) 

Domestic workers are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia, where they account for 20% of the migrant workforce among the countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, according to the International Labor Organization. Along with the garment sector, ILO describes domestic work as a "highly feminized" part of the region's informal economy. With tasks including child care and housework, domestic workers, over 80% of whom are women, free up other women to enter the workforce.

But as COVID-19 disproportionately hit Southeast Asian women's employment -- which declined by 3.7 million in 2020, compared to 3 million for men -- many domestic workers were made redundant. They count among the informal workers at the highest risk for job and wage loss, where women are overrepresented, according to ILO statistics.

In middle-income countries, which include eight of ASEAN's 10 members, more women than men were employed in high-risk sectors such as retail, manufacturing, food and accommodation.

Although the 1.2 million increase in regional male unemployment last year outpaced women at 0.7 million, it belies the 2.9 million women who ultimately left the workforce compared to 1.8 million men.

"Many women that lost their job went into inactivity rather than into unemployment, where they would actively search for a job," said Joni Simpson, ILO senior specialist for gender and equality.

"Home-schooling and caring for those who had the virus falls disproportionately on women. This made it harder for them to stay in and return to the workforce," Simpson added.

A Philippine law in 2013 was the first in Southeast Asia to outline rights and protections for 1.4 million domestic workers. But written employment contracts remain rare, covering only 2.5% of them. Consequently, 83% are not covered by social security and unemployment benefits, a critical lifeline to COVID-19 stimulus aid.

"If care work was valued, standardized, recognized and supported, and not left to individual families to find their strategies to offset care duties, conditions of work would be better," Simpson said.

Daza has written contracts with her two yayas, the Filipino term for domestic workers, in an effort to professionalize the often-overlooked workforce. Her employees receive social security benefits, health insurance and weekends off, a rarity for Filipino housemaids.

"I don't understand why you don't have a contract with your maids when you respect them as professionals," Daza said her French husband told her, spurring her to run her household more like one of her businesses. "I wanted to give dignity to the yaya, who plays a huge role in the family unit and shaping the child ultimately." -- FRANCESCA REGALADO

Taiwan: the art of containment

TAIPEI-- As the first female president in Taiwan's history, Tsai Ing-wen's back-to-back election victories in 2016 and 2020 have cemented her as a fixture on Taiwan's political scene.

She has won praise for standing up to China, Taiwan's gigantic neighbor which regards it as a breakaway province, and for Taiwan's effective coronavirus response. Thanks to early and effective containment policies, Taiwan has 955 confirmed cases and only nine deaths, as of March 1.

Second time's the charm: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen celebrates after her election victory in Taipei, January 11, 2020.(Photo by Akira Kodaka) 

Tsai came to power as part of a wave of female participation in politics on the democratically governed island. Female lawmakers accounted for 41.59% of Taiwan's legislature in 2020, the highest proportion in Asia according to the government's Gender Equality Committee (the average in Asia is 20.4%, according to the IPU Parline database on national parliaments).

But female politicians, including Tsai, still face sexism in Taiwan. Tsai, who is unmarried and single, said the personal attacks against her have never stopped since she entered politics. Independence advocate Koo Kwang-ming, a senior member of Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party and a former adviser to the Presidential Office, once questioned whether the party should hand its future to an unmarried woman and remarked that it was inappropriate for "someone who wears a skirt" to be commander in chief.

Simon Chang, former premier and former vice presidential candidate for the Kuomintang, said during the 2019 presidential campaign that Tsai does not understand the difficulties parents go through for pregnancy checkups, because "she did not give birth, and does not understand how parents really feel." Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who briefly entered politics in an attempt to run for the presidency on behalf of the KMT in 2019, criticized a female lawmaker for being "too busy to get married and give birth" when he was endorsing her opponent at a campaign rally.

Criticism has lessened as her popularity has soared. Thanks to decisive leadership, Taiwan was one of the first countries to recognize the danger of the mysterious pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, and issued its first warning to the World Health Organization while alerting the public on Dec. 31, 2019, weeks before China locked down the city.

The Tsai administration began barring the entry of Chinese nationals as early as Feb. 6 last year, and imposed a 14-day quarantine for people coming from Hong Kong and Macau. The island further closed its borders to all foreign nationals on March 19, 2020, and asked all returning Taiwanese and foreign residents to undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine.

"Tsai quickly leveraged Taiwan's horrific 2003 SARS experience to all but beat COVID-19, showing that people can stay healthy without sacrificing their freedoms. This only garners Taiwan even more sympathy the world over," Sean King, an academic at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs, told Nikkei.

However, relations with China continued to deteriorate following Tsai's reelection. The two sides of the Taiwan Strait have suspended formal communication channels since Tsai was first elected in 2016. Last year alone, Beijing sent military aircraft into Taiwan's southwest air defense identification zone more than 380 times, according to Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

But Tsai has seized the opportunity afforded by an effective COVID-19 response, and by the trade war between Washington and Beijing to build bridges to the United States. Washington's relations with Taipei reached a record high last year since the two governments severed diplomatic ties in 1979. -- LAULY LI

China: crossing red lines

HONG KONG -- It was January 2020, and Fang Fang, a celebrated Chinese author who hails from the city of Wuhan, was busy with a new novel. But with a mysterious viral pneumonia sweeping through her home city that month, her life and that of her community would soon be upended. When the Chinese government finally announced the quarantine of Wuhan, she put her long-promised book project on hold and began to write a blog about her life in the epicenter of the new coronavirus.

It turned into a sensation. Tens of millions of people read her unofficial daily updates to learn about the developments in Wuhan, at a time when media reports were censored or tweaked to support the narratives of the Chinese Communist Party.

The 65-year-old Fang Fang, who recently retired as head of the state-affiliated Hubei Writers Association, turned her pen to a wide range of topics: from the challenges of living in isolation with her dog, to the doubts she had over local authorities' handling of the coronavirus' early outbreak.

"Remember, there is no such thing as victory here. There is only the end," she wrote in early March 2020, when some people started to chant victory songs about how China had vanquished the outbreak.

Happier times: Chinese novelist Fang Fang at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2012. (File photo by Getty Images) 

Fang Fang gained international recognition after her posts were translated and published in English, which also embroiled her in controversies and personal attacks.

While most Chinese intellectuals have refrained from challenging the government in public, Fang Fang was blunt about local officials' incompetence in responding to the outbreak and called for them to be punished.

"The government must apologize to the people instead," she wrote on one of her February 2020 posts, responding to the news of Wuhan officials asking residents to show their gratitude to the party and the state.

Despite her longtime role as a writer endorsed by China's establishment, Fang Fang refused to follow the official narratives.

"Fang Fang is a very dedicated writer. She draws a clear demarcation between what to hate and love. Her writing shows sympathy to the life of ordinary people," Ai Xiaoming, a retired literature professor living in Wuhan and a friend of Fang Fang, told Nikkei.

She was not shy of bringing up uncomfortable and sometimes sensitive questions. "Dear internet censors, you should let Wuhan people speak," she wrote, criticizing the massive deleting of internet posts deemed to cast the government in a poor light during the outbreak.

Yan Lianke, a literature professor at Renmin University of China and the first Chinese to win the Franz Kafka Prize, said: "We should all thank Fang Fang. She picked up the conscience that Chinese writers have dropped on the ground."

The stories Fang Fang told from her Wuhan apartment, however, triggered a fierce online backlash that lasts even now, with many internet users accusing her of only exposing the "dark side" of China's coronavirus response. Some nationalists called her "liar" and "traitor," and she received death threats.

The Global Times, a state-owned tabloid newspaper, said her diary became "a handy tool for the West to sabotage Chinese people's efforts in fighting COVID-19."

In an interview with Radio France Internationale in December, the writer said she appears to have been blacklisted by the authorities, and was not able to publish any of her articles and novels in China.

"It's unthinkable that 40 years after China's economic reform, a person is deprived of her right of publishing just because she recorded what happened in an epidemic area for 60 days," Fang Fang said. "The tactics [against me] are very similar to those adopted during the Cultural Revolution."

Despite the threats and slander, Fang Fang refused to be silenced. She continues to share her thoughts about current events on social media, actively debating with attackers as well as responding to accusations against her.

"I shall never leave the places I like to people I despise," Fang Fang said. "I might be old, but I will never tire when it comes to speaking out." -- NIKKI SUN

New Zealand: pragmatic idealist

BANGKOK -- Jacinda Ardern, who became the world's youngest female head of government in 2017 at the age of 37, readily admits to self-doubt -- despite her reputation for a bold and disarmingly frank leadership style. The mix has served New Zealand's prime minister well in leading the country of 5 million people through the COVID-19 pandemic, having kept deaths to less than 30 and earning praise worldwide.

At the outset of the pandemic last March, she decided, after receiving sobering assessments of New Zealand's limited hospital and health capacity, that "going hard and going early" was "better than getting it wrong."

But after a jubilant exit from the swingeing restrictions in June, Ardern swiftly reversed course to reinstate lockdowns from August to counter clusters of COVID-19 cases. Fresh outbreaks -- most recently in Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city -- have prevented claims of outright victory. But with the disease largely at bay, the government is moving into a comprehensive vaccine program, having approved Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine in early February.

"New Zealand will only truly feel like it returns to normal when there is a certain level of normality in the rest of the world, too," Ardern said at a January press conference.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2017 became the world's youngest female head of government, at 37 years of age.   © Getty Images

In outlining her approach to the pandemic, she described the make-or-break moment in the early stages, when countries were considering two options: herd immunity, or flattening the curve of infections. She eventually opted for complete elimination, implementing a four-tier lockdown system and sealing the country's borders. Even if unattainable, she argued, the goal of eliminating the virus would save lives. "The alternative is to set a lesser goal, and then still misfire," she told media.

Despite solid left-wing credentials, she has moved far from the traditional Labour Party agenda with a mantra about the need to "govern for every New Zealander."

"The biggest misconception about Ardern is that she is a pioneering progressive or socialist," wrote Bryce Edwards, political analyst in residence at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. "Ardernism," he says, has taught the world about the power of conservatism during a crisis.

"She does something that her opponents seemingly can't emulate: espouse compassion as part of her conservatism."

In 2018, she became the world's second elected woman leader to give birth while in office, after Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, and is comfortable discussing the challenges of simultaneously raising an infant and running a country. Her partner, Clarke Gayford, is a television and radio broadcaster.

In a candid TV interview in December, she confessed to occasional bouts of "imposter syndrome," saying she tried to turn her self-doubt into "something more positive."

"Some of the people I admire the most have that self-consciousness and that slight gnawing lack of confidence. I think there is a bit of Kiwi in there too - it's a little bit in our nature," she said. -- GWEN ROBINSON

Japan: Olympian heights lead to a glass cliff

It was a sudden and unexpected job offer for Seiko Hashimoto, a seven-time Japanese Olympian. On Feb. 18, the former speed skater and track cyclist was given a shot at the biggest Olympic appearance of her career, when she was tapped to be president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

It was barely five months before Japan was scheduled to host the summer Olympic Games, delayed last summer due to the pandemic. They might well not happen at all, as Japan reels from the third wave of the virus. In February, Japan's star-crossed Olympic effort ran into yet another crisis: Intemperate remarks by then-president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori, who had said women "talk too much" in meetings.

The scandal offered a microcosm of gender relations in 21st century Japan. The comments sparked disbelieving headlines over the world, though some in local corporate circles remained baffled by the fuss.

Flirting with the glass cliff: Seiko Hashimoto in Tokyo, October 2020. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

At first, Mori declined to step down as chief, trying to make do with an apology. Yet as the condemnation grew stronger on social media, Mori finally recognized his position was untenable. He stepped down on Feb. 12, almost ten days after the remark was first reported.

After the job was offered to a man, who turned it down, the role fell to Hashimoto, who has been overseeing the preparation of the games as Olympics minister. She boasts the most Olympic appearances of any Japanese athlete, despite struggles with kidney disease and hospitalization in her childhood.

Hashimoto has long been a champion of gender equality, in one of the world's most gender-unequal countries. In her previous role doubling as women's empowerment minister, Hashimoto had developed a plan for the country's gender equality, with 89 targets. It aims to raise the proportion of women in leadership positions to about 30% by the early 2020s.

Taking over the Olympics, Hashimoto has set up a gender equality team, and put in place a policy to increase the ratio of women on the board to 40%.

"We need to show that we've reformed ourselves," said Hashimoto, who resigned from her ministerial roles and went as far as leaving the LDP to focus on fair management of the games. "If not, we cannot say we solved the problem."

Talking too much? Japan's former Olympics supremo Yoshiro Mori speaks to the media on January 28, just before his downfall. (Pool photo)

Now, as the Tokyo games' president, Hashimoto wishes to achieve things she couldn't accomplish as empowerment minister. Increasing the proportion of women in management positions is one of such goals. "We can promote women empowerment from the Tokyo games under global attention," said Hashimoto.

She has had a unique experience as a lawmaker in the male-oriented world of Japanese politics. In 1999, she faced criticism from a fellow male lawmaker for being the first incumbent member of the Diet to give birth in 50 years. He advised Hashimoto to leave her job if she wanted to give birth, since being a legislator requires full commitment.

Hashimoto returned to work only one week after childbirth, feeling "a mixture of chagrin and miserableness," Hashimoto later recalled in her autobiography. Now, she has six children, including three stepchildren.

"I was scolded by female office workers at the time. ... One of them said, 'You have to take a good rest because you are a Diet member. The more you try, the more we are told by bosses to push harder,'" Hashimoto said at a recent online event. "I thought society would not change unless the Diet changed its mind, and female members took proper maternity and child care leave."

Experts believe Hashimoto's appointment came as a natural consequence after Mori's sexist remarks. But some see her abrupt nomination at a critical time as an example of the "glass cliff," when women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts that are likely to fail.

But there is nothing strategic and sophisticated in the nomination of Hashimoto, said Renge Jibu, a journalist who covers women's empowerment in Japan. "A female president was appointed because Mori messed up. It is pure and simple logic," she said.

Another journalist, Madoka Nakano, said one of Hashimoto's key roles is to be inclusive of various minorities -- not limited to gender but also sexuality and disabilities. "If a woman who takes the role is an 'honorary male,' that won't make the situation any better," she said, referring to a woman who is accorded the respect due to a male.

Despite daunting challenges ahead, Hashimoto vows to be upbeat. "In the process of aiming for the games, we will show the world that Japan has the power to solve various problems one by one," she said. "Athletes, who are the games' leading actors, will be proud of our country." -- ERI SUGIURA and RURIKA IMAHASHI

Grace Li contributed data reporting from Tokyo.

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