Japan needs to make it easier for women to enter the work force and have a family at the same time in order to avoid further declines in its population, a government official said Thursday.
Kuniko Inoguchi, the recently named minister for gender equality, said companies need to respond more to the needs of working mothers by granting child leave for fathers and not encouraging pregnant women to quit.
"If you decide to have a family, and eventually you decide to go back into society, you're never fully employed and never fully paid," Inoguchi told a small group of reporters.
"So the opportunity cost for many women is very high," she added. "My suggestion is that we have better policies for a work and life balance."
Japan's population of 127 million began to fall for the first time on record last year, fanning worries that future generations of workers won't generate enough tax revenue to care for the growing legions of elderly.
At the center of the population debate is the question of how to encourage women to have more babies. Japan's average fertility rate of 1.29 babies per woman is one of the lowest in the world.
Japanese companies, however, typically expect long hours from workers, and many women with careers feel that they cannot meet the demands of both work and family life and must choose one or the other.
There are other disincentives to having children. Housing is crowded and expensive, education is pricey and husbands' long work hours mean that women have to raise children largely on their own.
"There's not enough support for families, for working mothers," Inoguchi said. "Not many men are taking child leave, so all the burden falls on women. And corporations aren't necessarily sympathetic."
Inoguchi said a leading problem was the pressure pregnant women feel to quit their jobs. She said the government would submit a bill in parliament this coming session to outlaw such discrimination.
"By becoming pregnant, you're pressured to leave," she said. "It's like bullying", reports the AP.