Addressing the ‘soft’ factors in overcoming gender inequality in the workplace


A major problem in Japan and other developed countries is how gender equality ‘on paper’ often veils a far more entrenched set of issues hindering progress in the challenge to overcome gender inequality in the workplace. These are post-legal equality issues: ‘soft’ factors, including cultural attitudes and institutional conservatism–factors which serve to perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace. Aside from constituting a social issue, the inability to incorporate women in the workplace exerts a severely negative effect on economic performance as a large portion of women’s potential is left unused. This is a problem especially for Japan, an economy which is already limping with a shrinking and ageing population.

The recognition of ‘soft’ factors as an obstacle to gender equality in the workplace goes hand in hand with the idea that enabling women’s participation should be addressed proactively, rather than just neutrally. This contention is also expressed in a report co-authored by the World Economic Forum and McKinsey published last year on how to close the gender gap in Japan, which includes suggestions on mentoring, training and leadership programs as possible “soft interventions.” Another set of examples are given in a a recent World Economic Forum post, where Ernst & Young CEO Mark Weinberger suggests proactive initiatives including reaching out to women, creating a culture of inclusion and considering how women’s potential can be enabled at all levels of the organization.

Obama weighs in on the free speech debate


During the past year, which has seen a series of controversies in the United States over the bounds of free speech, Barack Obama has at several times weighted in on the debate by championing a decidedly pro-free speech stance. This move is welcomed by many, including myself, especially considering Obama’s mass appeal and role model status in the United States today.

See NPR’s Steve Inskeep interview with Obama on this topic at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website.

The Yale controversy and free speech


As a response to the recent controversy at Yale, a group of faculty members have signed an open letter defending Erika and Nicholas Christakis and their right to free speech. The letter, authored by Douglas Stone of the university’s physics department, testifies to the alarming ideological polarization occurring on college campuses over the status of freedom of expression, and to what extent its suppression is justified for assumed social equality gains. Those arguing in favor of its limitation are often susceptible to a dichotomization of the issues at hand, painting them as a single dimension of progress versus regress in the social equality challenges the United States faces today, something I previously discussed in an op-ed I wrote for the Daily Pennsylvanian earlier this year. Here, Erika Christakis’ innocuous argument in opposition to the college administration interfering in student affairs has thus been distorted into a harmful act and an obstacle to progress, simply due to how it does not immediately amount to what some students believed to have been an appropriate, or even the single right, response to the situation.

This neglect of the core issues at stake, and rash adoption of an us-versus-them mindset, is a threat to the discourse necessary to find actual progress in social equality issues on college campuses and in the United States.

Randall Kennedy on the black tape controversy


Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, in an op-ed in the New York Times, makes a succinct and commendable comment on the recent black tape controversy. A welcome voice of reason in what has recently amounted to a quite disoriented discourse on racial issues.

Lessons from Japan: China and Korea


Recently, two interesting op-ed pieces were published comparing the economic difficulties faced by Japan following the early 1990s and the current situations of China and South Korea. The Japan case, including the ‘Lost Decades’ and still lingering economic challenges, can provide crucial lessons for the two East Asian rapid growth manufacturing economies which, like Japan has, face prospects of a difficult to pull off, but necessary, transition to a different type of economy.

The comparison with China, by Columbia’s Jeff Sachs, can be found here, while the Korea comparison, by Korea University’s Lee Jong-Wha can be found here.

Conceptualizing cultural differences: individualism and collectivism


The concept of individualism vs. collectivism is a simplified dimension with which to describe certain social patterns relating to how groups live their lives socially; whether they on a deep level think more as individuals or collectively as members of groups when compared to other individuals or groups. The concept, an integral part of Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, while limited by its generalized and decidedly descriptive nature, can be useful if applied correctly in crude cross-cultural comparisons. Importantly, the concept cannot explain why certain groups behave in certain ways, but can nonetheless function as a shortcut with which to conceptualize greatly generalized social patterns.

Individualism, as the name indeed suggests, describes group behavior with exhibits characteristics where the individual self is prioritized in contrast to a social institution such as a family, workplace or society when compared to groups who are more collectivistic. In more individualistic cultures, like the United States, it is commonplace to see individuals value personal goals to a higher degree and strive to fulfill such ambitions even if they do not necessarily equate to working toward what is best for that individual’s related social institutions as wholes. One must be careful here, however, since this does not necessarily imply that a social institution, like a family, should be expected to be less prioritized by an individualistic individual vis-a-vis a more collectivistic individual. An individualist may, from an intrinsic personal interest in his or her family, prioritize the family just as much or more than a collectivist; the difference lies rather in the function from which that prioritization is derived. In more individualistic cultures divorces are often more common, as marriage decisions tend to come from factors related to personal well-being rather than the long-term interests of the family as a social institution. A collectivist, conversely, would be expected to be more likely to endure a troublesome marriage as long as it was deemed to provide a net benefit to the family as a whole. We should remind ourselves, again, that these are just crude concepts that can be applied in oversimplified descriptions of broad social phenomena–it would be naive to attempt to divide people into individualists or collectivists. That being stated, we can see how, on a broad level, United States is often considered to have stronger individualistic tendencies than East Asian cultures, which are often associated with collectivism.

Collectivism, in contrast to individualism, describes the tendency to behave in a way where the social institution or group, such as a family, workplace or even entire society, is prioritized relatively higher than the individual self when compared to a more individualistic group. Collectivists are likely to more often value highly what is best for the social institutions that he or she belongs to over personal ambitions and goals when compared to an individual who is more individualistic. In this sense, it is more common for a collectivist to sacrifice own ambitions for the sake of a group’s best. For a collectivist, it is often a sense of duty, rather than personal interest, that is a driver. An overworked collectivist parent, for example, may work hard to serve his or her family since it is a duty as a parent in a family as a social institution, and relatively less due to a function of his immediate interest or love for his family, which would be more common in the case of the individualist. A traditional example of collectivism is often drawn from East Asian “Confucian” cultures.

An old thought-example situation I use to explain individualism vs. collectivism intuitively goes as thus: Imagine that you are waiting for your friend, with whom you are supposed to go on a trip by taking the bus. The bus arrives, but your friend has not yet arrived, but you expect him or her to arrive within a minute. Since the next bus will not arrive until much later, you, as an individualist–worried about having to wait long for the next bus, and worse yet, letting your friend wait–try to reason with the driver to wait for just a few moments until your friend arrives. If you are an archetypal collectivist, on the other hand, this would be unthinkable; the bus driver, the other passengers on the bus, and potential passengers waiting at the next bus stop take priority–there is no way your immediate personal interest to have yourself and your friend avoid waiting can take precedence. As a collectivist, thus, you wait for the next bus.

Again, as a concluding note, we must take great care not too overapply the individualism vs. collectivism dichotomy in our understanding of people and cultures. It should not be abused as means with which to explain or predict behaviors, as this might lead to misconceptions about the characteristics of individuals or groups. In short, it can only be useful in describing phenomena on a broad level, phenomena which arise from social, economic and other conditions, and the concept should thus not be used as a substitute for these when making explanations.

NOTE: This post was revised on December 27, 2015 to emphasize the descriptive nature of the concept and how it necessarily oversimplifies broad behavioral phenomena.


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