(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida risks reinforcing the view that the country is not serious about addressing gender inequality if women are shut out of the new leadership set to take the helm of the Bank of Japan this spring.

Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde have demonstrated that being female is no longer an insurmountable barrier to landing the top job at the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. Yet not a single woman’s name is doing the rounds as a potential replacement for Haruhiko Kuroda as central bank governor in the world’s third-largest economy.

At best, one of the two deputy governor positions may be filled by a woman for the first time, based on surveyed economists’ expectations. Kishida has said he will make his choices known in February.

While a female deputy governor would be a welcome step in the right direction, analysts and researchers see it as a bare minimum to show that policymakers are trying to change attitudes on diversity in a country that lags its peers.

“If a woman isn’t appointed, there’s the risk that progress on gender equality is delayed for another five years,” said Rie Nishihara, chief Japan equity strategist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and a former analyst at the BOJ. 

Kishida, who ran into criticism over a photograph showing his apron-clad wife apparently waiting on him at the dinner table during a 2020 leadership campaign, has shown little enthusiasm for promoting women in the workplace since he took office in October 2021.

While his former boss, the late Shinzo Abe, espoused the United Nations goal of seeking to have women take 30% of supervisory positions in all fields by 2020, that campaign ran out of steam and the time frame transformed into a vaguer commitment to reach the goal this decade. 

Kishida currently has only two women in his 20-strong cabinet. In parliament, the latest lower house steering committee has no women at all, a composition that prompted a tweet last week by Banri Kaieda, the deputy house speaker. 

The sharp gender imbalance runs through corporate Japan, and its bureaucracy too. Only 9% of board members on the country’s 3,795 publicly listed companies are women, according to a Tokyo Shoko Research Ltd. report last year. 

The BOJ ranked 142nd out of 185 central banks on gender equality last year, according to a report from the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum.

Even compared with other nations in Asia, there are fewer female leaders in Japan’s central bank, according to Tetsuya Inoue, a senior researcher at Nomura Research Institute.

“Japan may appear odd even to its Asian peers, as other central banks have had female governors and many women in senior positions,” Inoue said. 

Female Front-Runners

Still, expectations have grown that the BOJ is poised to get its first female deputy governor.

In a Bloomberg survey earlier this month, 23 out of 36 economists named Yuri Okina, a former BOJ official and chair of the Japan Research Institute, as one of the front-runners in the choice for deputy. 

BOJ Executive Director Tokiko Shimizu is seen as another possible successor to current deputy governors Masazumi Wakatabe and Masayoshi Amamiya. Shimizu has consistently broken through glass ceilings at the central bank. 

The two female front-runners have different experiences and skill sets, and may bring varying types of change to the BOJ, according to Nishihara.

Okina’s deep knowledge of the financial industry and the economy may facilitate consensus building within the top leadership in the decision-making process, Nishihara said. 

Shimizu’s international background may promote communication with global markets, she added.

Nishihara doesn’t rule out the possibility of the governor position going to a woman, but economists largely agree that the post will likely be taken by a man, with the majority betting on either Amamiya or former deputy Hiroshi Nakaso to replace Kuroda.

Pipeline Problem

The BOJ has a tradition of alternating the governor post between former finance ministry and BOJ officials. Both institutions have a low proportion of women in managerial positions. 

Women account for only 34% of MOF’s career track jobs, and 22% at the BOJ. Of the top posts within MOF, only 2.6% are occupied by women, while only one of the 15 director general positions at the central bank is held by a female.

The appointment of a female governor at the central bank would send a strong message on gender diversity beyond the financial sector and drive social change, experts say. 

“Role models such as central bankers are part of the broader process” to promote gender equality at all levels in the labor market and society, said Paola Profeta, professor of public economics at Bocconi University in Italy.

Diversity is important because “women give a different perspective and a different agenda which may turn out to be efficient and beneficial,” she said.

Diversifying viewpoints and communication approaches has changed the way central banks operate, according to Megan Greene, global chief economist at Kroll, citing examples of women in action at the Fed and the Riksbank.

“Take Janet Yellen — her focus on labor markets was different from what we’d seen before — or Anna Breman, who is a trailblazer on climate issues,” Greene said. “We need to build a pipeline of talent and ultimately a cultural shift.”

Some prominent female Japanese officials agree. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike — the first woman to win that post — said in an interview with Bloomberg TV that Japan must accelerate its efforts to have more female decision-makers in all institutions, including the central bank.

The BOJ has made some headway. Women now account for 49% of all workers at the central bank, when including those in non-career track positions. The proportion of female managers also topped 15% last year, more than double the level a decade ago.

But progress is slow and Japan is far from keeping up with the steps forward seen in other countries. 

“The role of the central bank is to set appropriate monetary policy for the entire nation,” said former Goldman Sachs vice chair and author of the “Womenomics” report Kathy Matsui. “It is imperative that the leadership of the bank fully represents the overall population, not just half.”

--With assistance from Jana Randow and Isabel Reynolds.

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