Working Women in Japan Still Face Strong Stereotypes

By Stephenie Overman May 29, 2014

Women in Japan continue to face “a working culture based on what seem to us old, male-dominated structures and strong gender stereotypes,” according to Kristin Engvig, founder of Women’s International Networking (WIN), an independent global women’s leadership organization.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made “womenomics” a key part of his reform plans, and Engvig said some Japanese companies are making progress. But female participation in the Japanese workforce remains far below that of other developed economies, she said.

Women who have children and men who wish to take care of children “encounter such inflexible work practices and culture that 70 percent of them stop working for more than 10 years and then struggle to get back in and be accepted back into the workplace,” she said.

There needs to be more awareness among the senior decision makers of the benefits that female participation brings to their companies and to the Japanese economy as a whole, she said. These senior leaders also need to realize the importance of policies that improve all employees’ work/life balance.

Companies that are most successful in fostering women’s participation in the workplace see flexibility as one of the key elements, and take practical steps such as implementing parental leave policies, said Engvig.

One example of success, she said, is Calbee Foods Co., a major Japanese snack-food maker which has developed a culture where “employees are not expected to work late all the time, and it is considered acceptable to leave ‘on time’ or even early.”

Other Japanese companies that have taken steps to support women in the workplace are Bank of Tokyo—Mitsubishi UFJ, Kirin Holdings and Suntory Holdings, she said. “They are leading the way, following the example of international companies operating in Japan such as PepsiCo, IBM, Google and Randstad, who are already pushing forward with more supportive working environments.”

Western companies may offer more opportunities for women, said Elizabeth Handover, Lumina Learning leadership development partner for Asia and founder and president of Intrapersona K.K., a Tokyo-based company that specializes in corporate training, leadership development and team building. But it’s difficult for Japanese women to take advantage of those opportunities, she added. “They need to be able to speak English, and they have to be a bit courageous to step into an unknown environment,” she said.

Handover added that in the next few years “I do think that women will pay attention to companies that treat them better, and those companies will attract more talent. That, in turn, will force other companies to change.”

She noted that Yuriko Koike, a member of Japan’s House of Representatives and former minister of defense, spoke at the Japan WIN conference recently held in Tokyo about the government’s initiative to raise the proportion of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020. He has also called for listed companies to appoint at least one woman to their board of directors.

But Handover said that Abe’s proposal to have companies expand child care leave to three years “is a double-edged knife” because “although it sounds great to give women long maternity leave,” small and mid-size companies cannot afford it. “They announced the three-year maternity leave [proposal] but now they’re quiet about it. Three years is too long, but more companies are giving maternity leave. There is a positive shift.” Currently, guaranteed maternity leave in Japan covers a period of 6 weeks prior to the expected birthdate to 8 weeks after giving birth. Child care leave starts from the day after the maternity leave ends (i.e., 8 weeks after the birthdate), to the day before the child reaches the age of 1.

Inclusion Means Men Too

Janelle Sasaki, PHR, until recently the inclusion and diversity leader for Cisco Systems Japan, said she came to emphasize inclusion rather than diversity.

“I learned we had 80 percent men in the workforce. It was clear through the data that I needed to put men into the equation as part of the overall D&I strategy,” she said. “Otherwise, I would only work with 20 percent.”

Since Japan’s workplace is so male-dominated, “we needed buy-in and participation from them to get out of the starting gate,” she said. “People don’t think about this aspect. Companies typically put time, resources and focus on women’s experiences only. They want to fix and develop women. The focus should be on better partnerships. How can we partner and include men on gender balance? How can we have comfortable and open discussions?”

The focus also should be on diversity and inclusion as a business strategy, “not an HR initiative or extracurricular activity,” she said.

Senior leaders need to engage in sponsorship of—not just mentorship of—women. “We hear a lot about mentorship through mentorship circles, peer-to-peer mentoring. Well, it’s not enough in Japan. Even when the mentoring relationship works as it should, it can at best offer back-room support, not front-and-center championing,” she said.

Handover found that the Japan WIN Conference, now in its fourth year, had “a different atmosphere this year,” one that was more positive and solutions-directed.

“From my experience in Japan of going to many women’s conferences, it’s usually talking about the problems, but when we focus on problems we just get more depressed and negative. This year it was very encouraging.”

That’s because participants believe that change can and is taking place, she said. “In Japan it sometimes looks as if nothing is changing. On the surface nothing is happening, then suddenly it happens very fast. It has been coming along underneath.”

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in Reston, Va.

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