Japan PM Abe to host women's conference

TOKYO - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday was due to host a three-day conference on women in the workforce, as the country grapples with boosting a low female participation rate.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, who has long pressed Japan to increase the chances for women to work as a way to expand its economy, is to give a keynote speech later in the day.

In a bid to draw global focus, Abe's wife Akie and Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair, will also speak, while US ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy is to introduce a video message from former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Economists say Japan's sluggish economy, with a rapidly-greying workforce, could get a shot in the arm from increasing the number of women with jobs.

Women are "over-represented" in non-regular work - part time or low-paid - in Japan, with the pay gap between men and women at 27 per cent, the second highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), according to the body.

The OECD has highlighted the terrible waste of talent in Japan, where young women are more likely to complete a university degree than young men, but less likely to be in the work force in the decades afterwards.

Abe has pledged to focus efforts on boosting female participation in the labour force, and says he wants to see 30 per cent of senior positions occupied by women by 2020. The rate currently stands at 11 per cent, one of the lowest in the world.

Last week the conservative premier appointed five women to his cabinet, seeking to lead from the top. The reshuffle included giving the powerful industry ministry portfolio to a 40-year-old mother-of-two.

Dozens of Japan's biggest firms - including Toyota, Panasonic and All Nippon Airways - have also announced targets for boosting the number of executive women.

But the task is a daunting one in a country where sexist attitudes are still prevalent and men dominate politics and business.

Long working hours, boozy after-work sessions with the boss, and not enough childcare facilities are also among the reasons why many working Japanese women opt to stay at home or give up hopes of promotion after having children.