Many companies are employing various systems to encourage women to return to work after a leave of absence. It has always been hard for female workers to design and pursue a career path compared with their male counterparts. Sony has been engaging with its employees, even during their leave, to help those who wish to continue working. It even subsidizes language courses. Coupled with the sobering labor shortage, companies are scrambling to find ways to retain workers and survive.
There are over 27 million female workers in Japan. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, half of the women who gave birth to their first child return to work. However, after a hiatus of a few years it is extremely difficult for them to return to the work they were doing before their leave of absence.
Sony will soon introduce a system that allows its employees to work during their leave. “Until now, it was only black and white; you either take a leave of absence or return to work,” explains a source in Sony’s HR department. However, that is not what Sony employees wanted. Many of them wanted to keep some sort of connection to their work during their leave.
Sony will allow its employees to telecommute up to two days a week if they require a leave of absence to be with spouses who have been transferred or to take care of family members. Previously, this option was only offered to those on child-care leave, most of whom are women, but this new system is available to men on leave as well. Sony is adapting its HR policy to the changing work environment, where it is no longer only women who take time off from work.
In response to employees who want to minimize the disruption to their careers or want a smooth transition back to full-time work, the electronics giant provides work opportunities based on the assumption that the worker on leave will return after a hiatus. It also supports employees on leave who want to hone their skills by providing employees up to 10,000 yen per month for company-approved training such as language classes.
Sony’s female management ratio in Japan is 6.5%, far below the 33% among the Sony Group companies in the U.S. Although the company cites its domestic business centering on electronics, which mainly consists of male engineers, for its low ratio, it aims to raise the percentage to 10% by 2020. The company is driven to protect its female workers from having to take long leaves or leaving altogether to improve its female-to-male management ratio. “We want to change the mindset of our workers and offer a variety of work-style options as a part of our internal reform,” says Sony President Kazuo Hirai with enthusiasm.
Other companies have systems in place to rehire employees who have already left. Suntory Holdings offers one-year contract positions to former workers who quit due to pregnancy, childbirth, childcare, or family care. If the contract term is fulfilled without any issues, employees can get a salaried full-time position with the company. The number of employees who took advantage of this system doubled in 2016 compared with 2013. Ajinomoto rehired 11 employees through a similar system.
Some are helping their workers gain overseas working experience while they raise children. Mitsubishi Corporation started a system that helps female employees stationed overseas take their children with them. The trading company did not want to see its female workers have to give up on valuable overseas assignments for their spouses’ or children’s sake. Workers will receive special allowances to spend on local babysitters and childcare. There are currently five female employees who are using this system.
Various businesses are joining this trend. The human resources consulting firm Manpower Group has partnered with Kokoruku (Meguro, Tokyo) to offer integrated support services called Hagukyari to company employees on leave due to childbirth and childcare. Its service offerings include preparatory classes before maternity and childcare leave, motivational workshops, and transition courses before going back to work. The joint venture hopes to gain 100 accounts by March of 2018.
It has been one year since the enforcement of the Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace, which aims to raise women’s leadership rate to 30% by 2020. In order to achieve this lofty goal, not only hiring practices but also internal systems need to be revisited to retain and maximize female talent.
“Although returning to the workplace after taking a leave of absence is important, it is necessary to balance workload with the returning workers’ childcare duties,” points out Akiko Kojima, a consultant who specializes in workers’ career development at Japan Research Institute.