What women really want from Womenomics

Sept. 19, 2014


Over 60 people attended the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ) event, "What do we really want? Women and Womenomics", at the BT Japan offices in Ark Hills this morning.

The event, run in support of the Ministry of Foreign Affair's "Shine Weeks" initiative, and supported by the British Embassy Tokyo, brought together a panel of three female executives and a variety of BCCJ member organisations, as well as 18 students and interns from the British School in Tokyo, the Tomodachi Programme, Waseda University, the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds, the EU delegation to Japan, Refugees International Japan, and others.

The Shine Weeks initiative, backed by the Government of Japan, Keidanren, The Nikkei, The Japan Institute of International Affairs and the Japan Center for Economic Research, is aimed at exploring how increasing female participation in the workforce will boost economic growth.

In her opening remarks, Julia Longbottom Deputy UK Ambassador to Japan, outlined the two key reasons why the British Embassy Tokyo supports workplace equality. "One is economic; women are arguably the world's most underused resource. Around 50% of the population is female but only 40% of the world's workforce are women. We are missing out if economies like the UK's and Japan's are not maximizing the potential of women. The second reason is because of our values. We believe strongly in the importance of diversity and that every individual should have the opportunity to make the most of their potential."

Julia explained the importance of role models and noted that, during her first 4-year tour of duty to Japan, she had been the first woman to have children and continue in her post, which had paved the way for others to see it was a possibility. She added, "And often people make assumptions about somebody because of what they are, not who they are. I have been mistaken for an assistant or greeter when I've hosted events at the British Embassy in Tokyo. People are of course embarrassed and very nice when they realise, but it's that initial expectation that needs to change."

Panelists Haruno Yoshida, President and CEO of BT Japan, Christine Wright, Regional Managing Director for Hays and Suzanne Price, President of Price Global, then shared their views on Womenomics, in a discussion moderated by BCCJ Executive Director Lori Henderson. Young Japanese women were encouraged to give comments and questions throughout the session, about the realities of entering the 21st century workplace.

Question 1 - What do women really want?

Suzanne Price said that a lot of emphasis was put on childcare and flexible hours when in fact those factors were only part of what a women might need during a 40-year working life. "Women might leave jobs for childcare reasons but there are other push factors such as 'My job is boring. I get overlooked for promotion'. It's often that women don't feel included or valued in the way they should. Over time, women will start to lose confidence, redefine themselves and downsize their dreams."

Christine Wright of Hays – which helps around 2,000 Japanese women find new roles each year – said that career advancement was a key motivator for changing companies. "Promotion needs to be based on merit, not gender and age or disability. Companies need to work as meritocracies. And often women are the right people for senior jobs. On the other hand, women would be annoyed to be promoted simply because they are a women to fufil a diversity quota. Ultimately, we need to remove the glass ceiling."

Haruno Yoshida further stressed the importance of meritocracy and said that she had be reassured by the message she heard from BT when she was hired, "We have our image of how we want a leader to be, and you happen to be that - and you happen to be a woman." She added that women had to believe in the strength of their own skills and attributes. "We have to know and believe that we are good, better than that ojisan (older Japanese men). That confidence has to come from us."

Question 2 – How do you feel about quotas for Japan?

Currently only 11% of Japan’s senior positions are occupied by women, one of the lowest percentages among wealthy nations. PM Abe wants women to occupy 30% of senior positions by 2020, an ambitious jump. 

Haruno said she was against the idea of quotas since true change would have to come from male managers gaining a deeper understanding of equality, as opposed to firms simply engaging in a numbers exercise. She added that, having held senior roles for generations, men have to think about the sort of company they would want their daughter or granddaughter to work for. She said: "Ultimately this situation has been made by males. It's like a magic spell, they cast it and so they have to break it."

Christine said she believed having targets would be necessary in order to drive change at a decent pace. "Sometimes we have companies coming to us and saying 'we want a 33-35 year old man for this position' and we have to go back and say 'have you considered these older people/women?' To create change you sometimes need to force it."

Suzanne said she believed the target set by the Abe administration of 30% of leadership was unrealistic. "Targets can achieve change; we need to have something that pushes the issue. As much as we like to believe in meritocracy, I would say that for 99% of companies, meritocracy is a myth – something in the small print of a firm’s intranet. Humans are biased and sometimes behaviours need correcting." 

Question 3 - What steps can Japan take to re-boot the system to see positive changes for both women and men? 

Christine said: "When I came to Japan I was amazed to find colleagues staying at work because they didn't want to leave before me, their boss. And also you hear of people working at their desks until 11pm. That to me is unbelievable. A work life balance is important for Japan – for men as much as for women. I told my staff that their working time is 9am to 6pm and that if they are performing effectively and giving us the results they want then they should leave on time.

"In terms of rebooting the system, there needs to be a change in the biases about what we see as leadership," said Suzanne. The ability to make decisions, and be assertive and direct are seen as leadership qualities in a man, but in a woman that can be seen as aggressive, it's a double-bind."

Haruno believes Japan could learn best practice from other countries, and that she had learnt a lot about diversity working for a British firm. She said "Other countries like the UK have done this ahead of us, why don't we ask for help and learn what they have learned - and start from there?"

What do young people want?

As well as hearing from the panel, Japanese female graduates and university students were invited to join in and give comments at each section of the debate. They had plenty to say about workplace equality and spoke of their hopes for their working lives, as well as the challenges and pressures they feel from society.

Eri Fumoto, a university senior and participant on the US-Japan Tomodachi programme, said she felt there was a lack of a role model network for young Japanese women and that taking risks in careers was not encouraged. She said: "Coming back from America to Japan, I was told that if I wanted to take a risk I should not do it in Japan. There are not a lot of entrepreneurs here and there are no second chances. In terms of alumni from Japanese universities, it seems there's little support for young women."

Haruno advised not to be afraid to ask for advice or support from older, successful women in order to create network of mentors or support.

Another concern from the students was whether or not it was necessary to "assimilate" into the traditional Japanese working environment, where differences are not encouraged. Some young people felt they were not able to break away from the "black suit" culture if they wanted to get ahead. They believe there is clear conflict between the traditional Japanese culture of harmony, which they did not wish to reject as an outmoded idea, and the self-assertion and self-expression required to achieve their potential.

Christine said she believed it was a balance of playing to conventions while expressing yourself. "You do have to learn to suck it up a little and work the system to your advantage, and pick your battles," she said, “which includes wearing a suit.”

The concept of "wa" (the sense of harmony in Japanese society) was raised. Haruno explained: "wa is about respect and understanding, it's not about avoiding conflict. Sometimes we have to have conflict to achieve greater understanding and a respect that's not just on the surface. That is the real wa Japan has to give to the next generation. That is when innovation comes."

Suzanne said that an environment that supports inclusion, where individuals don’t have to assimilate and blend in, was a key for future success. "When you can leverage the differences, you will get a return on the investment and inspire creativity and innovation. Acknowledge the assumptions made about yourself and then think about which of these you can use to push forward more easily, and which are holding you back. And then consider what resources you need to move ahead."

A student at The British School in Tokyo, said she and her peers believe that the assertiveness and confidence encouraged by PM Abe and Womenomics was at odds with Japan's traditional idea of women, who are often idealised as being quiet and without opinions.

Christine’s advice was for young people to avoid pressure to conform. She said: "It may be a bit lonely sometimes but you will actually get ahead. You might have to be the first one to fight it.”

Haruno added, "You don't have to flatter male expectations. Guys can be shy and avoid eye contact but they are doing that because they don't know how to act around women who are voicing opinions. We are going in to a new era, there's no template before this point for Japan, so there will be some hesitation and awkwardness. We have to work together."

Christine Zeitz, President, North East Asia for BAE Systems, joined the debate and explained that the situation in Japan was also to be found globally, in male-dominated industries such as defence, mining and engineering. She cited adaptability as a key attribute for young women to hone: "It's a maze but you need to find your own way through it. Manage your time so that all sides of you can be expressed. For 25 years at work I’ve worn trousers and tied my hair back, and spent all day speaking with men. Outside work I have a network of women who I can call on for support.”

The panel agreed that it might be necessary to conform to expectations early on in career cycles, in order to reach a senior position. After that point, it would be possible to rewrite the rules for the next generation. “You have to play the game in order to be able to change the rules.”

Finally, panelists urged young women to take advantage of the momentum of Prime Minister Abe's commitment to improving workplace equality. Haruno said: "I've never seen this drive and push to make a change before."

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Yunji Hwang, Head Girl at The British School in Tokyo, who was one of five sixth-formers who attended the BCCJ event, and has written a guest blog for Principal Brian Christian. Read it HERE

For lots more photographs from Womenomics and Women please see our Flickr page!

The BCCJ is committed to advancing Diversity and Inclusion, and this runs through everything we do. Since 2012, we have been running a series of D&I events, designed to promote greater understanding of, and develop support mechanisms for, diverse groups in the workplace in Japan, including women, people with disabilities, younger people, and the LGBT community. We believe diversity to be vital for the future growth and sustainability of the Japanese economy.