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Working women in Japan aim high, but bosses aren't listening

Survey finds that Japan lags behind Hong Kong and Singapore in providing access to the corporate ladder

Contrary to stereotypes, Japanese female professionals aspire to be corporate directors.   © AP

TOKYO A survey by professional recruitment company Hays has found that many Japanese female professionals aspire to be corporate directors, but that male bosses do not seem to grasp that reality.

According to a Hays survey of five Asian economies, 42% of Japanese female professionals said, "My line manager does not know my career ambition." That was more than four times higher than the share who said the same in Hong Kong, and notably higher than in China, Malaysia and Singapore.

It is widely believed that Japanese women are less ambitious than their peers in other countries when it comes to reaching the top of the corporate ladder. In the Hays survey, just 6% of Japanese female respondents said they aspire to reach the C-suite level within seven years. A further 23% said their aim was to reach that level within 10 years.

In Hong Kong, 22% of female professionals said they want to reach the C-suite within seven years, and another 17% within 10 years.

But the numbers do not do justice to the career ambitions of Japanese women. When asked if they would like to reach the director level, 13% of Japanese female professionals said they hoped to do so within three years, while 30% set a seven-year time frame, and 25% said their target was 10 years.

Japanese women are heading back to work in greater numbers after having children. The female labor force participation rate in Japan overtook the U.S. in 2016. But many women who re-enter the job market find themselves stuck in low-level positions for which they are vastly overqualified, according to Marc Burrage, managing director of Hays Japan.

"Unconscious biases can deprive women of opportunities, and make them lose motivation, because they think there is no hope of advancement," Burrage said at a news conference on Nov. 30.

Japan dropped to 114th place from 111th in the latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index.

"In Hong Kong, there is a dynamic and professional approach to work, influenced by the Western work style. Hong Kong females are encouraged from the moment they enter the company, all the way along, and this instills confidence," Burrage said.

In Japan, companies have not been as proactive in creating a work environment that is friendly to women. Although Japan has one of the most generous paternity leave policies among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- one year of paid leave -- only 3.2% of working fathers took up the offer in fiscal 2016.

Employees at a Japanese bank take part in a maternity leave seminar.

Companies should know that creating a flexible work environment helps in retaining talent, Burrage said. At Hays Japan, 59% of the staff, including half of the managers, are women. And the company is enjoying a record year financially, he added.

"Showing that the company cares about women leads to a workforce that is loyal and motivated to perform," Burrage said. "It is a good return on investment."

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