What is Matahara?
The word “matahara” is an abbreviated form of the English words “maternity” and “harassment”. It refers to the unfair treatment of women, namely harassment, both physical and mental, instilled upon working women when they become pregnant or give birth, which may involve termination of their employment, termination of their contract of employment, or forcing them to voluntarily leave their employment. Along with power harassment and sexual harassment, matahara is one of the three major forms of harassment that burden Japanese women in the workforce.
According to the results of a survey released by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation in 2015, one in every five (20.9%) working women in Japan has experienced matahara. In other words, it is something that any woman out there in the workplace is vulnerable to. Matahara is accompanied by the risk of miscarriage and premature birth, making the damage caused by matahara even more serious than that caused by the more well-known sexual harassment. However, no legal definition for matahara exists as of yet. Establishing laws relating to matahara and developing measures to prevent an increase in matahara cases is a pressing issue for Japan.
Along with providing valid and correct information about matahara, Matahara Net aims to organize complaints and information it receives from those affected to develop laws to stamp out matahara.
Matahara is not just an issue for pregnant women. It is a social problem that has become especially prominent in Japan, but not in other advanced economic nations. That is why we want as many people as possible to hear and learn about matahara and to think about this issue together.
Matahara is a social problem
Matahara is an old but new problem.
In Japan around 60% of women still leave their job when they get pregnant with their first child. As little as 43.1% of regular employees and 4% of non-regular employees return to
their workplace after maternity leave. Up until recently many women quit their job upon marriage and pregnancy and it was considered a virtue to do so. This old traditional value system is one reason why matahara emerged.
Matahara is a highly contagious disease.
Every woman has the potential to become pregnant. When women in the workplace see what other women have endured in the form of matahara, they also become infected with matahara and quietly leave that company, fearing that they could be the victim of such harassment in the future. Many of the women who contact Matahara Net say: “I felt like pregnancy was a bad thing”, “If I knew this was going to happen I would never have gotten pregnant”, and “I thought that I never want to get pregnant again”. Seeing this happening to other women within the same workplace undoubtedly leads to women rethinking marriage and pregnancy. In other words, matahara cannot be contained as the harassment of one woman, but rather spreads out as harassment toward all women.
Matahara is harassment targeting different ways of working.
Pregnancy, birth and child-rearing result in maternity leave, childcare leave and shorter working hours. These are all ways of working that differ from a person who can do as much overtime as they want. Matahara occurs in a workplace that cannot accept different ways of working. This particular point is important. It has been reported that, due to Japan’s aging society, 100,000 people a year will be withdrawing from the workplace in the future to care for another family member. This also means that an increasing number of workers will be working in non-traditional ways, by reducing work hours or working at home, for example, in order to fulfill carer duties. Not accepting various ways of working will lead to, not only matahara, but carer harassment, the harassment of carers who will need to work in a way which suits them best. Resolving matahara is also crucial, therefore, from Japan’s future perspective.
Why matahara occurs in Japan
Two deeply-rooted beliefs behind matahara
There are two major reasons why matahara has emerged in economically advanced Japan. The first reason is a gender-based division of roles. This involves a clear division of roles of married couples, where men go out to work and women stay at home to look after the house and the children.
Another reason is long working hours. According to a survey of those contacting Matahara Net about matahara, 44% of the workplaces involved had long working hours: 38% of respondents said that “overtime is a given and there are many days where you have to work longer than eight hours” and around 6% said that “there are many times when overtime goes until late at night.” This indicates that matahara has a tendency to occur in workplaces where long working hours are entrenched. With regards to paid leave, 42% of respondents identified themselves as being in a work environment where it is hard to take paid leave, let alone maternity leave or childcare leave: 22% of respondents said they “could only take one to two days of paid leave in a year”, while around 20% said they “could not take any paid leave at all”.
This model of gender-based division of roles and long working hours was established during Japan’s high economic growth years and is unique to Japan. As Japan was able to achieve success and high economic growth based on this model, even though other countries now point out that this model yields low productivity for the number of hours worked, it is difficult for Japan to simply cast away this model. The fact that the majority of Japanese society believes that long working hours is best is what gave birth to matahara in Japan.
Even women have different thoughts on matahara
One of the reasons that understanding toward women continuing to want to stay in the workplace has not garnered acceptance is because it is not what all Japanese women want to do.
Women can be divided in to three major groups. Women who choose to become “stay-at-home housewives” or “stay-at-home moms” as soon as they get married or pregnant. Then there are “career-oriented women”, on the other hand, who choose not to get married and have children, but rather focus on their work. The third group is the “working mothers”, those who want to continue to work after getting married or pregnant or while bringing up their children. The wives of many of the male bosses who engage in matahara are stay-at home housewives. These male bosses have a preconceived notion that being a stay-at-home housewife is the pinnacle of happiness for a woman and they simply do not understand that not all women are the same.
It is also worth mentioning that these three groups of women do not help each other’s causes. Unfortunately, some of the emails received by Matahara Net from women against this organization are vitriolic. Some comments from stay-at- home housewives include:“Don’t you feel sorry for your child having to be left at a daycare center just so you can go off and prioritize your work?”, “If you chose work, then it’s your own fault that you had a miscarriage”, and so on. Some comments from career-oriented women include: “I wish you would get out of the way of us women who have given up on children so that we can focus on our work”, “If you had talent, the company would ask you to stay”, and so on. Stay-at-home housewives and career-oriented women have made a choice, to focus on bringing up children or to work, and they perceive the choice of working mothers as being greedy.Career-oriented women, who worked at the same level as men, have forged inroads in society for women. The workload of women who take on child-rearing, virtually by themselves, as stay-at- home housewives also needs to be respected. While their words may seem harsh, the opinions of both groups can be understood to a certain degree. The problem is today’s society, which forces women to make a choice between children and work. If this leads to women getting married later in life and a lower birth rate, then sooner or later how we work will need to be reconsidered.
Whether someone is a stay-at- home housewife, a career-oriented woman, or a working mother, society needs to become a place where a woman can select her own path. This is what Matahara Net is truly about and we believe this will lead to improving the status of every woman in society.
The 4 Types of Matahara
As of August 2015 Matahara Net had been contacted by 170 women about matahara. Based on our talks with these women, matahara can be divided into four categories.
4 matahara types
The two major categories are “individual” and “institutional”. Individual includes harassment due to different sets of values existing in different generations and anger from colleagues.Institutional is harassment that occurs on an organizational level such as forcing people to work or driving them to resign.
“Imposing traditional gender-based values”
“Your child is your top priority.” “I’m just concerned about your health.” “Your husband’s income should be sufficient.” These words all become part of matahara when they are followed by a few more words like “so you should quit”. The concept of a gender-based division of roles is deeply rooted within Japanese society. What this means is that once a woman gets pregnant or has a child she is expected to leave her job, stay at home, and put her family first. The fact that this is perceived as making a woman happy is at the core of why this type of matahara occurs.
This type of matahara, where old values are forced on women, can also be referred to as matahara by “bosses with good, but incorrect, intentions”. This is the pattern where a boss thinks it best for the benefit of the pregnant woman to not make her do physically and mentally difficult work, or where a boss will move a woman away from important work because she has a husband and children, or where a boss will not give a woman with a family late night overtime because he feels sorry for her. This pattern, however, completely ignores the wishes of the woman.
This type of matahara, where traditional values are imposed on women, is caused by trying to impose a different set of values on another person. It is not done intentionally with ill will,and for that reason it can be very hard to handle and stamp out.
“You’re causing a lot of trouble.” “You’re so lucky you can take time off.” “You’re selfish.” These are the words often used by colleagues having to cover work normally done by women taking time off for pregnancy or child-rearing. These colleagues feel it is unjust that they have to take on extra work because someone made their own decision to get pregnant, and they instill matahara on the other person because of this. What they should be doing is voicing their opinion to their own boss, management, HR or the company itself. For larger companies it is possible to temporarily fill such gaps in the workplace. It is not so easy for small and medium-size enterprises, though, and the burden is usually put on remaining staff. The following is required in order to eliminate this type of matahara: an improvement in systems to evaluate bosses and colleagues who take on extra work, a review of compensation for extra work covered, the introduction of a system where employees who choose not to marry or have children can also take long paid leave, and the establishment of relief measures, not only for pregnant women, but for a company’s entire workforce. For small companies the loss of an employee for any amount of time can become a matter of survival. It is essential that this not become the responsibility of the company alone, but that local municipalities and government also provide assistance.
A labor culture exists in Japan where someone who works long hours is considered a full-fledged worker, while a woman who cannot work long hours due to child-rearing and so on is looked at being “half-fledged”. Matahara which forces an employee to work long hours, even though they can’t, is a type of “power harassment”. “You’re not allowed to work shorter hours.” “We don’t need regular employees who go home at a set time in the evening.” “We can’t treat pregnant women differently to anyone else.” Even though there is a system within the company for maternity leave, childcare leave and shorter working hours, these are all treated as exceptions to the rule and the use of any of these systems is frowned upon.
On the other hand, another type of matahara is where women are “forced out” of the workplace because they can’t work long hours. “You’re a burden on others if you can’t do overtime.” “You’ll have to leave once you get pregnant.” Some of the worst companies even tell employees: “Our company doesn’t have a maternity leave or childcare leave system.” What is shocking to note is that there are still companies in Japan where not one person has taken maternity leave or childcare leave, where women have been forced out of the workplace as soon as they got pregnant.
It is quite clear that such actions are illegal, but this also goes to show the low level of awareness that companies have toward their legal obligations. There is a situation in place where “habit” is prioritized above the law and relevant systems. The majority of matahara complaints in Japan today are actually this type of matahara, where a woman is forced out from her workplace.
Three checkpoints that women must pass through and the “mommy track”
Women must pass through three checkpoints if they want to keep working during pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing.
The first checkpoint is reporting a pregnancy. The majority of the complaints received by Matahara Net are associated with what happens here: the termination of the employment of a woman upon announcing that she is pregnant.
The second checkpoint is taking maternity leave or childcare leave. A woman may well end up leaving her workplace at this stage.
The third checkpoint is returning to the workplace after taking maternity or childcare leave.There are many cases where women apply for shorter working hours, only to be rejected,or where they are demoted or shifted to other positions upon returning to the workplace. At the moment, this is the second largest source of complaints received by Matahara Net.
Even if you successfully pass through these three checkpoints, what may await you next is something closely related to matahara, the “mommy track”. The mommy track enables a working mother to have both work and children, but provides few opportunities for career advancement. Working mothers are frequently given supporting roles and work, made to choose a career that enables them to work shorter hours, or reluctantly put on the mommy track where few career opportunities await them. Even if the problem of being “terminated” can be solved, this issue of the mommy track is deep-rooted. The reason being that this is not just an issue on the part of a company, but it is also deeply associated with the gender-based division of roles still prevalent in Japanese society where the mother is expected to bear the burden of child-rearing. Perceptions within society will need to change before change can be expected here. Avoiding the mommy track requires a woman to work without interruption, while also bringing up children. In order to do this, she must rely more on her husband, rely more on family members, or employ a third person to help. Either way, it is necessary for a woman to secure an environment, through whatever means she can, to enable her to focus on her own work. This is the challenge, and not an easy one at that.