The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

It is time to build on the momentum to empower women in Japan, and individuals have the potential to make an impact by taking action. This is the key takeaway for attendees at the 2015 ACCJ Women in Business (WIB) Summit, organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ).

Delivered by WIB Committee Co-chair Elizabeth Handover (page 47) in her opening welcome, this inspiring message was echoed by headline speakers and during panel discussions and workshops. Moreover, throughout the day, the air crackled with energy as men and women enthusiastically shared their recent achievements and hopes for further workplace improvements.

According to Handover, there is certainly a lot to celebrate, not least is the success of the WIB Summit itself. Albeit just the third annual summit, the event—held on June 29 at the ANA InterContinental Tokyo—attracted some 700 supporters of diversity, representing industry, government, and academia, and including a host of high-profile leaders and experts.

ACCJ President Jay Ponazecki commended Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for including Womenomics in his growth strategy, and for his pledge to have women in 30 percent of management positions by 2020.

This, Ponazecki says, has resulted in widespread awareness of the issues that diversity entails, and the acceptance of Womenomics as a core component of fostering economic growth. As a result, public support for the empowerment of women is rising. On reflection then, the mind set change sought by attendees at WIB Summit 2014 has taken place.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy agreed that she had also seen change in Japan in this area since she assumed her position 18 months ago.

Yet, despite the progress made, Ponazecki says many companies are still asking fundamental questions, such as how one might convert strategies into measurable results.

To ensure that real and measurable change continues and momentum is maintained, she called for “further collaboration between government—at national, prefectural, and local levels—and private-sector companies, with cooperation from female professionals, their families, their work superiors and subordinates, and HR and talent management professionals.”

A key part of the ACCJ’s mission, the summit also supports the development of the ACCJ’s white paper on the empowerment of women in Japan—Toward the Japanese government’s goal of 30% women in management positions by 2020: A Collaborative, partnership-based blueprint for Japan [provisional title]—which is due to be launched following the event .

“Today’s summit will raise the bar even higher for showcasing the three pillars of the ACCJ: making practical, solutions-based recommendations to help address and overcome challenging circumstances; sharing information and global best practices; and bringing people together,” Ponazecki said.

Kennedy congratulated the ACCJ on the upcoming white paper, which she says will take “a practical approach in outlining necessary reforms that will benefit all workers.”

The modifications include increasing productivity through merit-based evaluations; outlining the value of mentoring programs for men and women; greater transparency in the hiring and promotion of mangers, not just directors; and tax code changes to level the playing field.

“Further debate [on each of these issues] is needed here today and beyond, to make sure that [the issues] are embraced and implemented,” she said.

Kennedy added that change will not happen unless there is broad-based public support and strong demand. She echoed Ponazecki’s words urging attendees to become “agents of change” and think of the actions they could take to convert core strategies into measurable results.

“All of you in this room can and must play a vital role,” Kennedy said. “We have a moment of opportunity that we can’t take for granted.”

She shared examples of American women who overcame obstacles to achieve remarkable success.

“As we look ahead to the empowerment of women in Japan and the United States, we know we have a long way to go, but there are people to help us, to inspire us, and to lead us at every step,” she said.

This idea of role models was emphasized throughout the summit. Joining the opening panel discussion, Abe congratulated the female panelists for their achievements, pointing out the courage they have shown.

Abe says women can improve productivity, while support should be given to achieve a work–life balance that enables both fathers and mothers to help with childcare.

“We want to realize a society in which women shine on a global scale,” he said. Diversity is important in all aspects of society, he continued, adding that he is pleased to see a diverse audience, since men generally represent 95 percent of the individuals he addresses.

Men, too, have an important role to play, however, according to Masako Mori, former minister in charge of Support for Women’s Empowerment and Child-Rearing. She was fundamental in introducing—from Australia—the concept of Male Champions of Change, which was showcased in a panel discussion.

While it is important to learn from Western countries, the policies adopted must fit Japanese society, Mori told The Journal. Thus, since Japanese society considers it virtuous for women to support men, it is better that men should take the initiative in supporting women’s empowerment rather than feel compelled to do so by women.

Mori supported a meeting between an Australian male champion and his Japanese counterparts to share learning, as well as meetings between men’s and women’s networks.

“In the past, women’s issues were seen as human rights issues, but we have presented them as also being economic issues,” Mori said. “The virtue of the Japanese is that, although it takes time for them to be persuaded, once they are, they are really serious about solving the problem.

That’s why I think there will be acceleration [in the number of male champions of change and women in executive positions].”

Yukari Inoue, managing director, Japan and Korea, Kellogg Company, non-executive director, JC Comsa Corp., Suntory Beverage & Food Ltd., speaks at the Why Men Matter breakout session.

Yukari Inoue, managing director, Japan and Korea, Kellogg Company, non-executive director,
JC Comsa Corp., Suntory Beverage & Food Ltd., speaks at the Why Men Matter breakout session.

Speaking on the Why Men Matter panel, Twitter Japan’s Yu Sasamoto says limiting its Super Women at Twitter program to women only made people feel isolated but, once men could join, the program became active.

Other issues raised in this session included the promotion of inclusive workplaces by changing working styles, the use of female mentors for men to encourage understanding of diversity, and the availability of mentors for women.

Not only did the summit show actions that could make a real difference to women in the workforce, but it also offered practical advice.

Daiwa Securities Group’s Keiko Tashiro, a panelist in the Learning from Women in Leadership session, says attendees should become talent the company has to retain, while being assertive will nurture followers and supporters.

Likewise, Gap Japan’s Erin Nolan, a panelist on the session entitled A Path to Creating and Maintaining a Strong Pipeline of Diverse Talent, says knowing your goal and having a mentor or supervisor to talk to about it is vital.

She joined the company as an assistant store manager in 1991 and assumed the role of representative director of Gap Japan K.K. in 2014.

“Be open-minded to opportunities,” she told The Journal. “I think it is very important to learn, whether in a new role or by taking on a new challenge in your current role.”

Training in the form of workshops was also offered. These covered win–win negotiation strategies for women and how to develop diverse work styles. One moderator, Lumina Learning’s Aya Usui, is an example of how the summit is making an impact.

“Last year, I was a participant, so the education I gained was really for myself,” she told The Journal. “This year, I feel that people are really encouraged and get confidence from doing our workshop; it is great for me to see their faces change.”

A female leadership trainer, Usui localizes the programs she offers in Japan by adding more confidence-building components to change women’s mind sets.

She says men should provide the same support and opportunities to women that they have given to their male colleagues in the past.

She also called for more positive female role models in the media. Yet, as her fellow speakers, facilitators, and attendees say, it is perhaps women like her working for change at the grass roots level who are the best role models for Japanese society.

“All of you in this room can and must play a vital role.”