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Japan, women, and me

Strong targets to get more women into leadership roles are urgently needed

| Japan
Yoshihide Suga and his cabinet ministers pose for a group photo at Suga's official residence in Tokyo on Sep. 16. Only two cabinet members are women. (Photo by Karina Nooka)

Melanie Brock runs a corporate advisory in Tokyo and is founder of the social media project @womenofjapan. She is the first woman elected as an external director of Japan's Sega Sammy Holdings.

I am an optimistic person, someone who tries to find the silver lining. While this Pollyanna approach has served me well, I have found myself feeling rather exasperated of late.

Not just about the dearth of leadership and the pandemic, although that obviously worries me. What troubles me most is the future for women and girls in Japan, and who is watching out for them.

Who is fighting for women, for diversity and inclusiveness? Who will champion the cause and help bring about change and better balance? More importantly, where are Japan's women? All I see are men. Old men, at that.

Not that I have anything against old men. I know the incredible role and sacrifice many have made to keep the Japanese economy ticking over. Many Japanese men have made diversity and inclusion the focus of their work, supporting and promoting equitable structures within their organizations. Still, the old expression "you can't be what you can't see," applies.

This brings us to Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and his cabinet that includes only two women. Do Japanese women see becoming a minister in a future government as something they might aspire to? I doubt it. Among the list of vice ministers, only three out of 25 were women. So do young women see an opportunity here? I hope so, but probably not.

A man recently told me to get off my soapbox. Japanese women, he claimed, don't want to be in the limelight and many women are happy as they are. Maybe. I am not suggesting we force women into positions where they will struggle. Nor am I advocating making women do things they don't want to do. I am simply saying that Japan needs to push for greater diversity so that the interests of women and men are represented fairly.

Now, with so few women at the table, the decision-making process is anything but balanced. In the words of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg "women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn't be that women are the exception."

What Japan needs most is a clearly defined and broad-based diversity policy. Quotas, or at least strong targets, are needed. Flexible work arrangements, support for vulnerable sections of Japanese society, better education and greater awareness of the benefits of diversity and inclusiveness are imperative.

Only then can Japan improve on its current woeful ranking of 121st out of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum's 2020 Global Gender Gap Report -- a fall of 11 places compared to the previous year. This just isn't fair. Not to women, and not to men.

In 2013, then Prime Minister Abe launched a new policy called "womenomics," aimed at creating "a society where women can shine," with "women's empowerment" as one of its key pillars. But in July, Abe's government announced that it would have to push back its original objective of having 30% of leadership positions filled by women from 2020 to 2030. The sense of despondency was overwhelming. Pushed back by a decade!!

Prime Minister Suga could make himself very popular, and assure himself and his party the support of women voters if he were to define a policy platform that better supported women and their families. I am crossing my fingers.

A quick look at Japan Inc. shows mixed results. Yes, there are many examples of forward-thinking Japanese corporates, well-known for their success in creating a better working environment. Sadly, these companies are more often the exception, not the rule. With less than 10% of Japan's listed companies having a female director on their board -- the proportion of female executives at listed Japanese companies is around 3% -- Japan has a long way to go.

Less than 10% of Japan's listed companies have a female director on their boards. The proportion of female executives at listed Japanese companies is around 3%. (Photo by Tsuyoshi Tamehiro)

For women in Japan, the path forward needs to be developed by men and women together. We women need to get like-minded men on board. When I asked the chairman of a major construction company how he managed to change the ratio of women in the first-year intake, he said: "It had to change so we made it happen." A gold star for him. And as he well knows, more diversity means better results, with some estimates indicating that economic gender parity could add $550 billion to Japan's GDP.

When it comes to women reentering the workforce, we need to focus on training, reskilling, and support. Leadership training for men and women is needed and we must help equip businesses and governments with the tools and ideas necessary to bring about change.

We need to stop complaining and get a wriggle on. We need to work in our communities and start listening and learning. That means more grassroots level activity, better use of social media, targeted local government advocacy, and encouraging more women to go into politics -- there is plenty to do. As for Japan's dear national broadcaster NHK, better gender diversity on your programs please. Until then I am not paying my NHK subscription fees!!! No more MANels.

In a Japanese post-corona society, my hope is that women will be at the table, giving their input and being a part of the decision making. I also hope that our new Prime Minister will be bold and forthright about bringing more balance and diversity into his next cabinet. That would be true leadership.

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