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Opinion

Let's get real about female equality in corporate Japan

The government must push companies to set aside stereotypes and promote women

| Japan
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 dismal 114th out of 144 countries, according to Gender Gap Index published by World Economic Forum last year, behind India and only one place ahead of Ethiopia.

According to a 2017 Japanese government report, women account for only 13% of managerial positions against 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. That makes the Cabinet Office target of 10% by 2020 sound hollow.

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, when the education ministry first provided gender-based data. By 2016, the figure was 46%. So there is no shortage of young female talent. 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 of Economic Development and Cooperation, although it is worth mentioning that 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. It could also support innovation as theory says that diversity promotes fresh perspectives. The government is now boosting social infrastructure for child rearing, including a recent 2 trillion yen package to increase childcare for working parents and provide pre-school education free.

Not feeling welcome

While social support is no doubt necessary, will this really solve the problem? I am afraid that the root cause runs deeper. Here is dirty secret. The basic reason women do not aspire to corporate leadership is that they do not feel welcome. Women see through the thin veneer of the propaganda where the incumbent power feels little pressure to change. 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. Just to check the box. It is indeed quite lonely out there. As a woman business consultant, I have witnessed a case where women in sales positions had to form an underground network to share leads as they often felt excluded from lead flow monopolized by male colleagues.

What then can we do to get serious about diversity in Japan? In other words, how can we avoid the two-faced approach of hoisting ambitious targets while averting our eyes from the real issues?

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. Is it not time to have each individual company set its own target, then hold it accountable? One proponent of this methodology, Germany, records 29% women in managerial positions as opposed to 13% in Japan, 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. These companies are no longer "Japanese" in the traditional sense, they are multi-nationals of Japanese origin. 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 bringing mid-career women or female staff who have taken breaks back onto their career tracks. This is vital to catapult gender diversity. The labor ministry estimates 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 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, which only addresses younger women mostly in their late 20's or 30's. Moreover, companies which are visibly behind this return-to-work movement are usually non-Japanese such as Microsoft , the American software giant, which offers a "return-ship" program in Japan, and JPMorgan, the U.S. bank, 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 to measure suitability for promotion. If this is judged only by favoring the right degree (say a male-dominated discipline such as engineering), the number of loyal years' service, and the volume of political capital an individual has accumulated with peers, women returnees have little chance of success. Rather, the yardstick should be broadened to include an ability to bring in fresh perspectives, for example, or to demonstrate genuine empathy for clients and employees. One mid-sized company attests that only after a working mother was promoted in leadership, did they start offering flexible work hours to employees, which resulted in a jump in retention rate. The key is not to judge women with a men's yardstick but to judge both in the same fair way.

Gender-neutral encouragement at every stage of a career cannot be overemphasized. 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, women scholars already occupy 28% of researcher posts, close enough to the government's 30% target by 2020. This shows that where professional success has a direct correlation with talent and zeal, and is easily tested, women are on equal footing to men. It is in business, where the correlations are murky, that we need to change our mindset.

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. Nobody questioned it. These signs subtly signal that we are different and cast us in gender roles. Something is not right when women at work must form a secret sorority group to support each other with sales leads.

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 domestic labor shortages, now is the time to get serious. Or never.

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

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