Gender roles

Recently during the final weeks of my exchange period in Japan I had an assignment in a class investigating a contemporary factor about Japanese society. We made a study and wrote a paper in the matter of gender roles, so I thought to sum up the essence of the report as well as giving my thoughts about it here.

Japan today is facing a big challenge with the growing problem of an aging society. Urbanization and digitization has transformed cultural values and less people are interested in having children. The trend shows that less babies are being born, people are living longer and so the average age of the population is increasing. This means that there will be a smaller work force and simultaneously more elders to take care of in the future. A lot of economical issues appear as a consequence from this and one announced method to counteract the dilemma is to bring more women into labor, since a lot of women in Japan are not working today. A large percentage of Japanese women are either housewives or just part-time employees whilst almost all men work full-time. This desirable transition is a big challenge. Unfair working conditions is not the only factor that represents Japan’s high inequality, as this depends on many things. However, one of the possible reasons behind the lacking gender equality in Japan could be how the mentality of traditional gender roles has been passed on from generation to generation within families. These old-fashioned roles of the father and mother are recycled during the upbringing of children and the distribution of inequality is accepted as a normality. This is a common excuse we heard when talking about the state of this context, so we wanted to see if it is actually a legitimate reason.

Our paper describes a study in if the division of gender roles in families correlates with gender equality of society. We applied an identical investigation in China, Finland, Japan, Sweden and Thailand to see what typical gender roles within families are. The survey was translated to each native language. Each country’s result was compared with official data of gender equality standards in respective country. The numbers could then be weighed against each other to see if their comparisons follow similar patterns for all countries. Again, The aim was simply to find out if the values of gender roles in families (of all our countries in general and in Japan especially) is an authentic and affecting reason for equality or inequality in the corresponding society. If the results from the majority of the countries point to that the gender roles in families reflects the country’s status in gender equality of society, then we thought we could do an assumption that it is in fact a reasonable explanation and should be counteracted.

The importance of gender equality is of course not only to resolve an upcoming economical crisis. It is indeed a tool for developing society but it also plays an important role in constituting fundamental civil rights. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights first article states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and “They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Gender equality is an important issue all over the world, studies show that genders are not equal anywhere and therefore work needs be done and conversation needs to be maintained to achieve better standards. But, the concept of equality has different meanings to different people, this means that a questionnaire in this subject will be difficult to adjust to everyone. It could seem like it is gravely generalizing in some aspects, but this was not the intention. The study had to be the same in all countries and Japan was the initial benchmark. Since Japan was supposed to have a widespread normality of this traditional family view and since this was what we wanted to investigate, the questionnaire was formed in this way. A heteronormative family is not a matter of course. 


Some visualized data here. Overall we received 338 responds, 51.5% were female and 47.9% male. 

In Japan, the result confirms most of the situation of gender role stereotypes of Japan, but also surprises in one perspective. The childcare responsibility is most equal for all the investigated countries, even when almost all fathers work full-time and many mothers are housewives.

Although Swedish mothers and fathers work mostly full-time and in equal numbers, traditional gender roles are seen in families. Over 40% of the Swedes thought that the main childcare responsibility is the mothers. The overall ranking of China in our survey is surprising in financial responsibility, and working status of parents. China seems to be in the same level of equality with Sweden and Finland in questions about head of the family, financial responsibility and parent work status.


The results were compared with data of each nation’s gender equality status. The comparison was done with the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) provided by the World Economic Forum, where the index values are from 2015. The report examines four areas:

  • Economic participation and opportunity
  • Educational attainment
  • Political empowerment
  • Health and survival

Japan has a very low GGGI rank compared to other countries on the same level of industrialization and economic progress. Sweden and Finland are in top five and are the in the leading positions from the nations we compare. Finland is leading the international rank from our examined countries and takes the second place from all countries reported in GGGI. Finnish families gender roles were also the hardest to distinguish from the countries we examined in our own study. Sweden places second from the countries we examined placing fourth from all countries in GGGI. Swedish families were reported as rather equal but with limits. For Thailand and Japan more clear gender roles were seen. Chinese families tended to also be rather equal in decision making and both mother and father worked mostly full-time. But then again the responsibility for childcare and household chores were more the mother’s responsibility. The Chinese family proving as one of the most equal in our survey but according to GGGI the gender gap in Chinese society is still quite wide. This is the biggest contradiction in the comparison. 


There seems to be a correlation between gender roles in families and gender equality of society. With the exception of China, the results from our survey points to a similar level of relative gender equality as the ranking in the GGGI. So does this mean that a significant reason for Japan having such a high inequality is that traditional gender roles in families are passed on to children and therefore preventing the country’s gender equality from evolving?

In hindsight, It is hard to say with confidence if we can make this assumption or not, since it is such an ambiguous statement. We believe we have shown that the two concepts are separable, but still correlated. Our conclusion is that Japan has a lot of work to do in many different areas to achieve better gender equality standards. Maybe rather than a reason for Japan being unequal, the preservation of traditional gender roles is a consequence of other factors in Japanese society. It is hard to say what is producing what and this proposed explanation that we have investigated might be either just the easiest excuse or in fact logical, but due to more specific reasons.

This study can seem subjective, especially since our sample size was smaller than necessary. And like we described earlier, this investigation could seem to be generalizing in terms of gender roles. It is not simply a question of this or that. A survey like this would advantageously have been adapted to a more well defined target audience and in the case of several audiences like ours, several further adapted questionnaires would have been optimal.

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