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Nobuko Kobayashi: It's time to get real about gender equality in corporate Japan

Country cannot waste anymore time in tapping women's workforce potential

Japanese executives typically come from the time when elementary school children's backpacks were uniformly black for boys and red for girls.

About 150 years after it opened up to the rest of the world, Japan is one of the globe's most developed, prosperous and democratic countries. But in some ways it remains a place apart, especially when it comes to the role of women in leadership posts.

Japan ranks a dismal 114th out of 144 countries, according to the Global Gender Gap Index published by the World Economic Forum last year.

According to a 2017 Japanese government report, women account for only 13% of managerial positions, compared with 43% in the U.S. and 32% in France. At listed companies, it is even worse -- women hold just 3.4% of executive positions against 17% in the U.S. and 30% in France.

At first glance, this is perplexing given that the 1986 Equal Opportunity Act was enacted over 30 year ago. Women already accounted for 30% of college graduates in 1992. By 2016, the figure was 46%. Moreover, the overall female employment rate -- the percentage of women of working age actually in jobs -- has climbed strongly to 76.9%, above the 71.7% average for developed countries in the grouping by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, although the Japanese figures include many part-time workers.

The real problem lies with the continuing male dominance of full-time, better-paid managerial posts.

It is therefore no surprise that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe puts female empowerment high on its agenda: It seems a good way to combat Japan's chronic labor shortage.

But while social support is no doubt necessary, will that really solve the problem? The basic reason women do not aspire to corporate leadership is that they do not feel welcome. When 68% of public companies do not have any women on the board and 25% only one (with only 6% having two), the message is that women are a token.

What then can we do to get serious about diversity in Japan?

First, the target itself. While the Cabinet Office sets the blanket goal of 10% women in executive positions for public companies by 2020, when we are at 3.4%, it loses its credibility. Isn't it time to have each company set its own target, and then hold it accountable for achieving it? One proponent of this methodology, Germany, records 29% women in managerial positions, according to the Gender Equality Bureau, Cabinet Office of Japan.

Globalization has propelled large Japanese corporations to develop substantial businesses outside Japan. Hitachi, for example, generates half its revenue from overseas. The more international the nature of business, the bolder a target we should expect. We then can expect a trickle-down effect from these top companies to more locally oriented enterprises.

Secondly, let us take a really imaginative approach to putting midcareer women or female staff who have taken breaks back onto their career tracks. The labor ministry estimates that 60% of women leave work around the time of the birth of the first child. Dentsu, an advertising agency, estimates 3.6 million housewives are out there looking to re-join the workforce, more than half of the total 6.6 million housewives.

While there are programs to help these job seekers, they pale in comparison with the budget for child care support. Moreover, the companies that are visibly behind this return-to-work movement are usually non-Japanese, such as Microsoft, which offers a "returnship" program in Japan, and JPMorgan, which supports "mom internships." This is an area where the government could really set some fires blazing with assertive policies.

BROADER YARDSTICK Of course, once back, women need the right environment to flourish. This is only possible if companies shed some of their traditional yardsticks for measuring suitability for promotion. If there is too much emphasis on the right degree (say, a male-dominated discipline such as engineering) and the number of years of loyal service, women returnees have little chance of success. Rather, the yardstick should be broadened to include, for example, the ability to bring in fresh perspectives or to demonstrate genuine empathy for clients and employees.

The glimmer of hope is that where women are evaluated on the right criteria, they lead successful careers, even in Japan. The Cabinet Office reports that in natural science, female scholars already occupy 28% of researcher posts, close to the government's target of 30% by 2020. This shows that where professional success has a direct correlation with talent and zeal, women are on equal footing to men.

I am more optimistic for younger generations. The unnecessary distinction of boys and girls at school is breaking down. Today, Japanese school kids may choose whatever color they like for their school backpack. When I grew up in the early 1980s, it was 100% black for boys and red for girls.

Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time to wait for Generation Z to reach adulthood to close the gender gap in Japanese management. With the pressures of globalization, a shrinking population and record labor shortages, the time to get serious is now. Or never.

Nobuko Kobayashi is a partner at A.T. Kearney in Tokyo.

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