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Japan snack maker smashes stereotypes by promoting women

Decades of advancing female workers bring uninterrupted profit

Yuriko Iida, a team leader, says she picked Sanshu Seika because it allowed her to continue working after becoming a mother. (Photo courtesy of Sanshu Seika)

TOKYO -- Japanese companies can be notoriously sexist, smaller businesses especially so -- or so the stereotype goes. But one snack maker about 50 km from Tokyo has minded the gender gap for decades.

"Working here, I feel like I won't be denied opportunities because of my gender or my age," said Yuriko Iida, a team leader at Sanshu Seika, a mid-size company in the city of Kasukabe. As a mother of a four- and a two-year-old, she joined Sanshu because it allowed her to advance her career even after becoming a mother -- something that unfortunately can be an uphill battle in many of Japan's workplaces.

As far back as 2003, the Japanese government set a goal to have women make up 30% of managerial roles, although that benchmark has been lowered over the years. In fact, at the top 100 Japanese companies in 2017, women made up only 6.5% of executives, including auditors and corporate officers.

However, Sanshu is ahead of the curve at 31%, with President Shinichi Sainohira pushing for greater diversity in its workforce since 1988. His efforts were largely inspired by his time at what is now Panasonic, where he worked before he took over Sanshu from his father, the company's founder.

"Back then, female workers were only given support roles and were placed in low-rank positions," he said. "I thought things couldn't stay this way."

President Shinichi Sainohira pushed to promote women when he took the helm of the company in 1988.  (Photo courtesy of Sanshu Seika)

As soon as he became president, Sainohira formed a committee from the company's top talent to plan bottom-up efforts for advancing female employees. The committee's first proposal was for a woman to be promoted to assistant manager or higher every time a man achieved these positions, which can attend managerial meetings. The idea was to gradually narrow the gender gap at the top by promoting an equal number of men and women.

Skeptics at the time questioned whether the company had enough qualified female workers, or if women would want management roles. But Sainohira pushed through.

"Nothing will change without decisive action," he said.

Many of the committee's plans have been implemented. For example, workers used to be exempt from overtime until their children entered elementary school. In response to popular demand, parents can now opt out until their children are in third grade.

Ensuring a healthy work-life balance is a cornerstone of Sanshu's efforts to promote and retain women. One way it does this is by training administrators in two other roles, so they can fill in when people need take time off at short notice.

The company produces traditional Japanese rice crackers known as sembei.  (Photo courtesy of Sanshu Seika)

Such measures have also allowed male employees to enjoy more family time. All of Sanshu's male workers take parental leave, a staggering figure when compared with the 6% national average.

Sanshu has logged a pretax profit for 31 straight fiscal years since it began advancing women. "It's been a big boost for us to have women tap their potential," Sainohira said.

A symbol of this women-driven success is the popularity of Sanshu's Pasta Snack line. A woman came up with the idea to add the flour-based product to the lineup of a company known for rice snacks such as senbei crackers.

"It's a concept that would absolutely never have come from male employees," Sainohira said.

Sanshu searched across the country for equipment that could process pasta, however it came up empty-handed, leaving no choice but to develop one from scratch. But the effort was worth it, as the pasta line accounts for 20% of the company's 2.5 billion yen ($23 million) in annual sales.

To ensure that "women's success" isn't just an empty slogan, "leadership by the president and executives is essential," Sainohira said. Sanshu has made it a key performance indicator, and the president reports on the company's progress at monthly management meetings.

But although Sanshu has set a more ambitious target than the Japanese government for women in management -- a 35% ratio -- "there's not much thought about it," Sainohira said.

And some employees have become used to being "a company that empowers women," he said.

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