Next Steps for Women's Leadership in Japan

The following is a summary of the breakout session "Next Steps for Women's Leadership in Japan" at the 2015 U.S.-Japan Council Annual Conference in November 2015. 

(L-R) Hon. Kelly R. Welsh; Ms. Margot Carrington; Mr. Yukihiro Otsuka; Ms. Merle Aiko Okawara; Mr. Takayuki Kawashima; Ms. Susan Morita and Mr. Yuta Hasumi


Following an introduction by Mr. Yuta Hasumi, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Japan, AIG Japan Holdings, Ms. Margot Carrington, Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs, U.S. Embassy Tokyo, spoke about the great momentum and enthusiasm for working women that has recently appeared in Japan. She also commented on the widespread recognition of the concept of Womenomics.

Ms. Carrington then described her proposal to the State Department on why women do not succeed enough in senior positions, which was fueled by her experiences in Japan. She looked at best practices across the United States and one of the key findings was that even if more women are brought into organizations, they still do not advance to the highest positions. She made specific suggestions for this in terms of training and mentoring, work-life policies, and career options. She also noted the importance of benchmarking against other organizations.

Mr. Yukihiro Otsuka, Deputy Director-General for Gender Equality Policy, Cabinet Office, Japan, outlined the developments in Japan for women’s empowerment. He showed a graph that displayed the discrepancy between women who want to work and the number in the work force. About 3 million women who wish to work are not able to. There are many reasons for this, but often the reason is that women feel compelled to give up their jobs for childcare. Mr. Otsuka said that the figure of three million shows a waste of the talent of women.

Mr. Otsuka then outlined the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in Japan, but noted that there are still numerous challenges. In the past, the Government of Japan was not able to regulate the private sector, but now it will make concrete requirements for companies for recruiting and promoting women employees. This information must be disclosed and companies that fall short will be required to step up their efforts. The guidelines will be published in the near future, and support will be given to companies that create their own private plans.

Ms. Merle Aiko Okawara, Chairman, JC Comsa Corp., said that she struggled for years after establishing her company. In the days when Japan was flourishing, gender issues and the difficulties faced by women, minorities, and foreign people in starting businesses were generally ignored. Ms. Okawara then outlined specific efforts in her own company to advance women. When she first examined her company, she found that 12% of employees were women, with 3% in middle management. She realized that it was her job as the company’s leader to make a change, so she implemented monthly reports on the status of women and made sure departments were held accountable for the results. She also described her company’s positive work conditions, including the fact that employees do not have to work long hours, women are not required to leave after having children and are allowed to come back to their former posts, and there are no differences between full-time and part-time employees.

The Hon. Kelly R. Welsh, General Counsel, U.S. Department of Commerce emphasized that productivity in Japan would flourish with more women in the workforce and in leadership positions. He stated that diversity leads to better outcomes for businesses, and noted that this is a challenge not only in Japan but also in the United States.

Mr. Welsh emphasized the importance of policies in this area. In European countries, leave and daycare policies are more generous and in turn women participate in the workforce and in senior roles to a greater degree. Following the implementation of better policies, Google also saw an increase in women who stayed after becoming pregnant. Mr. Welsh also emphasized the importance of transparency, and cited Silicon Valley companies that are now disclosing hiring information on women. His final point was on practicality, and he noted that hiring processes should include at least one diverse candidate for senior management positions.

Ms. Susan Morita, Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP, stated that she has been involved in diversity efforts for many years. The first stage of efforts was getting representation, and there was also focus on retention and promotion. Currently, the word diversity is going out of style, and the focus is now on equity and inclusion. There is an important distinction between equity and equality, and recently discussions in the United States have centered on microaggression and microinsults. Ms. Morita noted the importance of challenging stereotypes and unconscious bias that disadvantage women in the workplace, and emphasized that leaders must be the ones to drive the participation and promotion of women.

Mr. Takayuki Kawashima, Board Member, Fathering Japan (NPO) & President, Mitsui & Co., Logistics Partners Ltd., said that men must be active in supporting women as they juggle work and childcare. He mentioned “ikumen” who are active in childcare, and said that male bosses must change their management style to support such men. He called for “ikubosses” who value work-life balance and care about families and their communities. Problems in Japan include meetings that are much too long and frequent, and “nomunication,” the culture of creating work and business ties while drinking alcohol. However, Mr. Kawashima has observed marked improvements in policies for work-life balance, like having employees leave at 6 pm and use all their holidays.

Ms. Carrington said that her research showed that such measures have very positive effects, including increased employee motivation and business results. She then observed that some “ikubosses” can go too far when trying to help women, and can end up harming their careers by giving them smaller projects. She encouraged such bosses to consider the situation of each of their employees and to make proper judgments. Mr. Welsh agreed with Ms. Carrington, noting that sometimes women are given less difficult assignments because of mistaken beliefs held by managers that they have less capacity or time.

Ms. Morita then noted the need for objective, up-front criteria for resume consideration, which lessens unconscious bias. She also said that many Japanese companies are doing good work in supporting women, and called for more partnerships between U.S. and Japanese companies.

Mrs. Okawara then commented on a problem with the new law in Japan, noting that the great majority of Japanese companies have fewer than 300 employees and are thus not subject to disclosure requirements on women’s participation and leadership. She also suggested that talented women become entrepreneurs, and called for more financial support from the government to support these women and small businesses that are spearheaded by women. Mr. Otsuka said that the small companies are not being ignored, and that different measures will be created for them. With regards to financial support for businesses, he noted the limited budget of the Government but said efforts will still be undertaken.

In response to Ms. Carrington’s question about workplace culture, Mr. Otsuka said that leadership, men’s mindsets, and concepts about families must change. He noted the importance of top leaders for effecting change, and also said that the Government of Japan will encourage men to take on more housework. Ms. Carrington noted that traditionally men are seen as the breadwinners and women as homemakers, and that a societal change must occur beyond a change in men’s mindsets. Mr. Kawashima said that men must learn to think beyond their work lives, and consider whether they are happy simply working all day and then going out to drink with colleagues.

Ms. Carrington then mentioned the Governor of Hiroshima, who is well-known for taking paternity leave in Japan. She said that men who take paternity leave in the United States understand how difficult it is to take care of a baby and also show a greater interest in doing more for childcare and in the home.

A member of the audience commented on the wider cultural context that does not change with government policies. She asked about steps outside of institutionalized government policy to create better work environments and enhanced work-life balance for both men and women. Ms. Morita agreed that this is a challenge and said that it should start with individual people, especially senior management. She said that many U.S. corporations do not believe that such issues affect their bottom line and thus do not address them. Mr. Welsh emphasized the importance of transparency. Ms. Carrington said that during her research, she saw a list of the best companies for working mothers. Many companies desperately want to be on this list, and this shows the power of incentives to effect change.

A member of the audience described an initiative from Volvo, in which male employees gather for men-only training to discuss their fears concerning peer pressure from other men. They then receive mentorship from a woman employee. Mr. Kawashima mentioned that his organization hosts gatherings for men to discuss raising children.

A member of the audience said that when she came to Japan from Bolivia, she was shocked at the attitude toward women. She said that it is a society-wide problem, and that Japan does not allow women to challenge themselves and does not provide proper support in areas such as childcare. Ms. Okawara said that Prime Minister Abe is addressing these problems, including the opening of new nurseries.

Ms. Okawara then suggested focusing on the positive, and said that Prime Minister Abe’s work has led male leaders to agree to address gender issues. She noted that she has been working on a list of women who are on the boards of companies. Although this was originally opposed by the Keidanren, now more information is being disclosed. The information shows that 1% more women are on boards than two and half years ago. Mr. Otsuka added that the Government of Japan considers all women, not just the women at the top, in its commitment to make a society in which women shine.

A member of the audience commented that the investment banking industry is very macho, but that he believes that women are better investors than men. It is very difficult for men to admit if they are wrong compared to women, which hinders their ability to handle their mistakes and cut losses. He said that it is helpful for investors if there is a stewardship goal for government organizations to show how much pressure they are putting on companies to change their policies.

Mr. Otsuka said that company plans must be disclosed, and that the Government of Japan will show the information so that companies can compare themselves with others. Companies that are not doing well will stand out and feel the need to do more. Mr. Welsh agreed that transparency about statistics on hiring and diversity factor into the decisions of investors. This can lead to consequences for companies that have bad track records, such as other companies deciding not to do business with them.

A member of the audience said she was impressed by a company where the percentage of women increased when looking at employees by seniority level. She asked about other such role models with more women then men on their boards. The panelists could not name any companies with 50-50 representation of women on boards. Mr. Okawara said that the average percentage of women in management in Japan is 10%, and that Abenomics aims to bring the percentage to 20%. Ms. Carrington said that the audience member’s story would end the session on a bright note. She closed by stating that the U.S.-Japan Council is an excellent facilitator for two-way flows of information on issues concerning women.