Girls Just Wanna Have Equal Representation on Corporate Boards: A Comparative View of Female Directorships in Norway, France, and Japan

Breana Drozd

Despite having the world’s third-largest economy1 and a highly educated female population,2 women have struggled to attain directorships on Japanese corporate boards. While women comprised 71 percent of Japan’s labor force in 2019,3 a mere 8.4 percent of board seats in Japan were held by women that same year.4 This disparity mirrors the global problem of female underrepresentation in the boardroom—women held only 16.9 percent of board seats across 8,600 companies in forty-nine different countries in 2018.5 These numbers serve as a glaring reminder of the prescribed gender roles that have prevented women from shattering the oppressive glass ceiling that has loomed over them for centuries.

Nations worldwide have begun to address boardroom gender inequality by reshaping their cultural climates with legislation and other social change mechanisms. In 2003, Norway was the first country to enact a compulsory corporate board gender quota,6 which increased female representation on Norwegian corporate boards from 6.8 percent to 40.3 percent in just eight years.7 France subsequently emulated the Norwegian quota model in 2011, and has seen the fastest and most notable boardroom gender diversity improvements among the European Union member states to date,8 achieving 44.3 percent female directorships in 2019.9

Recently, Japan entered the boardroom gender equality arena with a focus toward increasing the proportion of female directorships on Japanese corporate boards.10 However, without a compulsory quota law like that of Norway and France, it is unlikely that significant increases in boardroom gender diversity will occur in Japan. The tension between Japan’s existing restrictive social paradigms and its facially progressive gender equality laws makes it exceptionally difficult for women to remain in the workforce, let alone climb the corporate ladder. This essay briefly reviews key Norwegian and French legislation that has paved the way for corporate boardroom gender quota success in Norway and France and argues that Japan should model its laws and efforts on those countries if Japan aims to increase female representation on Japanese corporate boards.


Norway’s pre-quota social climate fostered an environment in which a corporate board gender quota law could thrive. In 2001, Norway ranked the most gender-equal nation in two United Nations indexes,11 and has since been described as a place that makes it “easy” for women to balance work and family life.12

Norway gained its progressive reputation by building a legal framework that defied traditional gender roles and advanced the position of women decades before Norway enacted its corporate board gender quota. In 1993, for example, Norway was the first country to introduce a mandatory paternity leave policy, commonly referred to as the “daddy quota,” which granted fathers four weeks of parental leave13—leave which 80 percent of fathers take advantage of today.14 Importantly, Norway has also historically supported women with generous extended leave options15 and a universal child care system that has decreased child care fees and entitled families to guaranteed slots in daycare facilities.16 These progressive policies laid the groundwork for later gender equality legislation—for example, when Norway’s Parliament amended the 1978 Gender Equality Act requiring employers to affirmatively implement procedures to increase workplace equality.17

With this social and legal infrastructure serving as a sturdy foundation, Norway was prepared to impose a gender quota law in the corporate context. Perhaps most crucial to the quota’s success, however, was Norway’s quota enforcement mechanism: those companies that failed to comply with the quota law faced the grave penalty of dissolution.18


France has also achieved increased gender equality in the corporate context through use of a boardroom gender quota. However, this success is a product of decades of legislation that have chipped away at France’s historically restrictive gender roles. 19 Like Norway, France has implemented and strictly enforced laws that have reshaped these roles over time, and consequently blazed a trail for French women to acquire board seats alongside their male counterparts.

While numerous laws have contributed to France’s progressive social climate, the interaction of a few key policies enabled women in France to balance their career and family lives. Notably, the Neuwirth Act of 1967 legalized contraceptive use in France and gave French women control over their fertility that they did not have previously.20 Following this Act, France increased funding allocated to the construction of child care facilities (crèches and garderies), which enabled more French women to return to work after having children.21 In 1997, the French government implemented the “new family policy,” which focused legislative attention on maternity leave, parental sick leave, and individualized child care subsidies and plans.22 These policies, among others, changed France’s family dynamics from a predominately male breadwinner model to a dual-earner model.23

Perhaps vital to France’s corporate board gender quota success, however, was France’s prior experience with a quota law in the government context. In 2000, France enacted a compulsory parity law requiring political parties to name women as half of all party candidates.24 This compulsory parity quota accustomed French citizens to the idea of a compulsory corporate board gender quota. Importantly, France’s 2011 corporate board gender quota law adopted the parity law’s compulsory element, which mandated strict compliance with the quota. Specifically, two thousand publicly traded French companies were required to meet the 40 percent threshold, rather than view it merely as an aspiration.25 France effectively enforced the corporate board quota by providing that board appointments made in violation of the quota law would be rendered null and void.26


Japan has the most rapidly aging population in the world coupled with a low birth rate,27 creating a major age gap in Japan’s population and a shortage of labor.28 Consequently, there has been a great push for women to join Japan’s workforce. With an increasing number of women in the workforce, one would assume that there would be greater opportunity for women to acquire corporate management positions. However, Japan’s existing legal framework and social infrastructure increase the difficulty of balancing careers with family life.

Japan has been described as a “workaholic” society where taking days off is viewed with great disdain.29 This karoshi30 culture is deeply engrained in the Japanese legal system31 and has prevented Japanese wives, mothers, and caretakers from advancing in their careers. This working environment, together with existing social norms that can pressure women to be submissive,32 and Japan’s traditional Confucian ideals which have historically discouraged women from pursuing careers,33 has slowed Japan’s corporate board gender diversity progress.

In the past few decades, Japan has enacted laws aimed at increasing gender equality in the workplace, but they have been largely ineffective in practice. For starters, the Japanese Constitution includes an Equal Rights Amendment which outlaws sex discrimination in employment; however, this provision has historically offered weak protection for women.34 Following international pressure to increase its gender equality legislation, Japan enacted the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) to level the playing field between men and women in job hiring, training, and promotions.35

However, ten years after its enactment, women in Japan reported that the EEOL had failed because employers were only urged to “endeavor” to decrease gender discrimination.36 Under the EEOL, employers continued assigning women to jobs that were deemed “appropriate” for women,37 which often constituted part-time, low-paying jobs.38 The EEOL’s “endeavor” language stands in sharp contrast with Norway’s and France’s mandatory quota language requiring affirmative action from corporations. This non-compulsory language, combined with a lack of punitive measures and enforcement mechanisms, effectively rendered the EEOL a mere suggestion rather than a law demanding compliance.

Further weakening its implementation, the EEOL incentivized employers to develop a “two-track” employment system—a management track and a standard (or clerical) track. 39 In 1990, 96 percent of women were on the standard track.40 Women who wanted to apply to the management track had to commit to long-term employment with significant overtime hours and possible location transfers on short notice.41 Even those selected for the management track were expected to arrive to the office early to perform menial tasks, such as cleaning ashtrays and brewing hot water before the work day started.42 These requirements were deemed acceptable sex-neutral standards under the 1985 EEOL so long as women tolerated these standards.43 Although the EEOL was revised in 1997 and 2006 to address the 1985 EEOL’s shortcomings, the law still lacks enforcement mechanisms and fails to impose affirmative duties on employers to address sex discrimination.44 Therefore, the EEOL’s effectiveness has not changed in practice.45

Laws such as the EEOL, in conjunction with Japan’s work culture, effectively prevent women from climbing the corporate ladder. Traditionally, if a Japanese woman’s career was interrupted at any time due to marriage or child birth, she was forced to start back at an entry level position and work her way up the corporate ranks again, regardless of her education level or work status prior to the interruption.46 Notably, the management track of the 1985 EEOL required women to convince their employers that they were willing to give up having a family to instead pursue a career.47 These realities have pressured women in Japan to choose between having a career or a family for decades.

Later legislation addressed the gaps created by laws such as the EEOL and Japan’s intense work culture. In 2016, for example, Japan introduced the Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace, which aims to promote women to decision-making positions while encouraging “a balance between [the] smooth and continuous working and family lives . . . of women.”48 Though well-meaning, the Act again invites employers to endeavor to equalize opportunities between men and women.49 This language, which is reminiscent of the 1985 EEOL, may not be enough to incentivize employers to implement policies to actively promote women and increase gender equality.

According to the Gender Equity Bureau Cabinet Office, the Japanese government aimed to increase the proportion of women on corporate boards to 10 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030.50 However, measuring at 8.4 percent in 2019,51 Japan lags behind its goal.52 Since Japan has no compulsory corporate board gender quota in place, Japanese companies are not motivated to make sincere efforts to promote women to their boards. Even if employers were motivated to avoid the consequences of a compulsory system, however, the enduring tension between Japan’s social norms and working culture makes it difficult for women to achieve a balance between work and family life in practice.

Unlike Norway and France, which have incentivized company compliance with the threat of dissolution or other sanctions,53 Japan does not have any enforcement mechanisms in place in its existing gender equality legislation to ensure that companies are actively working to combat gender discrimination in the workplace. Japan has made improvements in achieving greater gender diversity, but when compared to countries like Norway and France that were able to achieve over 40 percent female representation on corporate boards in less than ten years, it is clear there is work left to do. Japan must loosen its restrictive gender roles and soften its harsh working culture. Under these conditions, a compulsory quota law with strict enforcement mechanisms is the best way to ensure increased female representation on Japanese corporate boards.

  1. ↑ 1 Prableen Bajpai, The 5 Largest Economies in the World and Their Growth in 2020, Nasdaq (Jan. 22, 2020), [].
  2. ↑ 2
    Women in the Workforce–Japan: Quick Take, Catalyst (Oct. 2, 2019) [hereinafter Women in the Workforce], [].
  3. ↑ 3
  4. ↑ 4
    Olga Emelianova & Christina Milhomem, Women on Boards: 2019 Progress Report, Morgan Stanley Cap. Int’l, 22 (Dec. 2019).
  5. ↑ 5
    Id. at 23. See also Yaron Nili, Beyond the Numbers: Substantive Gender Diversity in Boardrooms, 94 Ind. L.J. 145, 152 (2019).
  6. ↑ 6
    Norwegian Public Limited Liability Companies Act 1997, c. 5, § 6-11a (Nor.). See also Anne Sweigart, Women on Board for Change: The Norway Model of Boardroom Quotas as a Tool for Progress in the United States and Canada, 32 Nw. J. Int’l L. & Bus. 81A, 83A (2012).
  7. ↑ 7
    Douglas Branson, Initiatives to Place Women on Corporate Boards of Directors—A Global Snapshot, 37 J. Corp. L. 793, 797–98 (2012).
  8. ↑ 8
    See Catherine M. A. McCauliff & Catherine A. Savio, Gender Considerations on the Boards of European Companies: Lesson for US Corporations or Cautionary Tale?, 16 Geo. J. Gender & L. 505, 533 (2015).
  9. ↑ 9
    Emelianova & Milhomem, supra note 4, at 22. In 2009, only ten percent of board seats of French listed companies were held by women. Darren Rosenblum & Daria Roithmayr, More Than a Woman: Insights into Corporate Governance After the French Sex Quota, 48 Ind. L. Rev. 889, 894 (2015).
  10. ↑ 10
    30 Percent Club Launches Japan Chapter to Raise Women’s Presence on Company Boards, Japan Times (May 6, 2019) [hereinafter 30 Percent Club], [].
  11. ↑ 11
    Norway—World Leader in Gender Equality, Statistisk Sentralbyrå [Statistics Norway] (Dec. 5, 2003),[].
  12. ↑ 12
    Richard Milne, Enlightened Norway’s Gender Paradox at the Top of Business, Fin. Times (Sept. 19, 2018), [].
  13. ↑ 13
    As of 2018, fathers can now take fifteen weeks of parental leave. Norway’s “Daddy Quota” Means 90% of Fathers Take Parental Leave, Apolitical (Sept. 17, 2018), [].
  14. ↑ 14
    Darren Rosenblum, Feminizing Capital: A Corporate Imperative, 6 Berkeley Bus. L.J. 55, 61 (2009).
  15. ↑ 15
    See Rebecca Ray, Janet C. Gornick & John Schmitt, Ctr. for Econ. & Pol’y Rsch., Parental Leave Policies in 21 Countries: Assessing Generosity and Gender Equality 3 (2008). Now, Norwegian women receive 46 weeks of leave at full pay. Christa Clapp, The Smart Economics of Norway’s Parental Leave, and Why the U.S. Should Consider It, Wash. Post (Jan. 11, 2016), [].
  16. ↑ 16
    This universal guarantee system developed over the first decade of the 2000s, but the slow transition started in the 1980s. See Anne Lise Ellingsæter, Ragni Hege Kitterød & Jan Lyngstad, Universalising Childcare, Changing Mothers’ Attitudes: Policy Feedback in Norway, 46 J. Soc. Pol’y 149 (2017).
  17. ↑ 17
    Rosenblum, supra note 14, at 61.
  18. ↑ 18
    See Terje Solsvik & Gwladys Fouche, Norway’s Gender Quota Law Has Made Boards More Professional: State Fund Boss, Reuters (Sept. 30, 2013), [].
  19. ↑ 19
    Christine Roland-Lévy & Mouni Haoua Kouidri, Women Today in French Society, in Women’s Evolving Lives: Global and Psychosocial Perspectives 181, 183 (Brown et al. eds., 2017).
  20. ↑ 20
    Catherine de Guibert-Lantoine & Henri Leridon, Contraception in France: An Assessment after 30 Years of Liberalization, 11 Population: An Eng. Selection 89, 89–90 (1999).
  21. ↑ 21
    See id. at 89. It is easier for women to return to work with the creation of more childcare centers.
  22. ↑ 22
  23. ↑ 23
    See How Do Partners in Couple Families Share Paid Work?, OECD (Mar. 2017), []. See also Claude Martin, The Reframing of Family Policies in France: Processes and Actors, 20 J. Eur. Soc. Pol’y 410, 412 (2010).
  24. ↑ 24
    Eléonore Lépinard & Marylène Lieber, The Policy on Gender Equality in France 7 (Policy Department C: Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs ed., 2015).
  25. ↑ 25
    See Rosenblum & Roithmayr, supra note 9, at 889–90.
  26. ↑ 26
    Erika C. Collins, Global Diversity Initiatives, 46 Int’l Law. 987, 993 (2012).
  27. ↑ 27
    See Laurel Wamsley, Japan’s Births Decline to Lowest Number on Record, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Dec. 24, 2019),’s%20Births%20Decline%20To%20Lowest%20Number%20On%20Record%20%3A%20NPR&text=Japan’s%20Births%20Decline%20To%20Lowest%20Number%20On%20Record%20The%20country’s,and%20a%20growing%20demographic%20crisis [].
  28. ↑ 28
    See id.
  29. ↑ 29
    See Danielle Demetriou, How the Japanese are Putting an End to Extreme Work Weeks, BBC (Jan. 17, 2020), [].
  30. ↑ 30
    Karoshi translates to “death by overworking.” Id.
  31. ↑ 31
    See Kiyoko Kamio Knapp, Still Office Flowers: Japanese Women Betrayed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, 18 Harv. Women’s L.J. 83, 92 n.71 (1995).
  32. ↑ 32
    See Melanie Belarmino & Melinda R. Roberts, Japanese Gender Role Expectations and Attitudes: A Qualitative Analysis of Gender Inequality, 20 J. Int’l Women’s Stud. 272, 273 (2019).
  33. ↑ 33
    See Juliet Y. Mun, The Impact of Confucianism on Gender (In)Equality in Asia, 16 Geo. J. Gender & L. 633, 634 (2015).
  34. ↑ 34
    Kristina T. Geraghty, Taming the Paper Tiger: A Comparative Approach to Reforming Japanese Gender Equality Laws, 41 Cornell Int’l L.J. 503, 506 (2008).
  35. ↑ 35
    See Knapp, supra note 31, at 86.
  36. ↑ 36
    See Japan Policy Brief, OECD (Apr. 2017) [].
  37. ↑ 37
    See Knapp, supra note 31, at 111-12.
  38. ↑ 38
    Women in the Workforce, supra note 2.
  39. ↑ 39
    Robert Larsen, Ryousai Kenbo Revisited: The Future of Gender Equality in Japan after the 1997 Equal Employment Opportunity Law, 24 Hastings Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 189, 209 (2001).
  40. ↑ 40
    Id. at 210.
  41. ↑ 41
    See id. at 209-10.
  42. ↑ 42
    See id.
  43. ↑ 43
    Id. at 210-11.
  44. ↑ 44
    Geraghty, supra note 34, at 523-24.
  45. ↑ 45
    See id.
  46. ↑ 46
    Robbi Louise Miller, The Quiet Revolution: Japanese Women Working Around the Law, 26 Harv. Women’s L.J. 163, 165 (2003).
  47. ↑ 47
    Id. at 210.
  48. ↑ 48
    Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace, Japan, art. 2, sec. 2, Sep. 4, 2015.
  49. ↑ 49
    See id. at art. 4, art. 6.
  50. ↑ 50
    See 30 Percent Club, supra note 10.
  51. ↑ 51
    Emelianova & Milhomem, supra note 4, at 22.
  52. ↑ 52
    The proportion of women on the boards of the top 100 Japanese corporations measured at 1.4 percent in 2009. See Douglas M. Branson, An Australian Perspective on a Global Phenomenon: Initiatives to Place Women on Corporate Boards of Directors, 2012 AJCL Lexis 30, *12 (2012). If the proportion of women on Japanese boards continues to increase at its current rate, Japan will face great difficulty in meeting its 2030 goal.
  53. ↑ 53
    See Collins, supra note 26, at 993.