Toshiba Accused of Gender Discrimination in U.S.

Toshiba’s U.S. business was slapped with a $100 million lawsuit for alleged discrimination against female employees over pay and promotion. It’s not the first time Toshiba has been in the spotlight on the broader issue of gender disparities in the workplace.

A promoter dances during Toshiba’s product demonstration at CEATEC JAPAN 2010.

This issue was raised at the company’s shareholder meeting in Tokyo last June; during the question and answer session, one shareholder asked why Toshiba didn’t have any female executives. Like many other Japanese companies, Toshiba’s board of directors and executive officers are all male.

“We are not discriminating at all,” a Toshiba executive said in response to the shareholder’s question. “It’s just that we haven’t found appropriate candidates. We expect to have female executives in near future,” he said.

The lawsuit filed this week against Toshiba America Inc. claims that the company regularly fails to pay women equal salaries and bonuses as men who do similar work, segregates women into lower pay-grade positions and favors men for promotion. The suit seeks to represent a class of as many as 8,000 female employees in the U.S.

While this is the latest in a string of gender discrimination suits against major companies in the U.S., the case involving a unit of the Japanese electronics maker also sheds light on the broader situation in Japan, where discrepancies in labor conditions between men and women are larger than they are in the U.S.

The average wage level for women in Japan was about 68% of that for men in 2008, according to a survey of workers (excluding those working part-time) by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. By comparison, women’s wages in the U.S. were about 80% of men’s in 2008.

The fact that few women are in middle manager and executive positions in Japan results in a big wage difference, the ministry says.

According to a 2009 survey by business publisher Toyo Keizai, just 1.2% of executives at listed Japanese companies were women. In the U.S., women held 13.5% of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies in 2009, according to a survey by Catalyst Inc, a nonprofit organization that focuses on women in the workplace.

In Japan, many social and political factors are behind the statistics showing a gender gap at work places.

One main factor, for example, is lack of support both at home and in the society for women trying to have children while keeping their full-time jobs. About 70% of women who get pregnant quit their jobs in Japan, according to a ministry official. This also reflects the society’s expectations that women shoulder more childcare responsibilities than men.

The government implemented a revised law last year to make it easier for men to take childcare leave while also allowing women to work shorter hours after returning to work following their maternity leave. The labor ministry has also been calling on companies to proactively implement measures to narrow gender gaps in terms of promotions and other working conditions.

While those may not immediately translate into better conditions for working women, “revising the system is also a way to raise people’s awareness,” says the ministry official.


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