The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

This year’s Women in Business (WIB) Summit, held on October 27 at the ANA InterContinental Tokyo, focused on the challenges that lie ahead in the fight for female participation in the workforce in Japan. According to American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) President Christopher J. LaFleur, one of the biggest challenges is growing the role women are able to play in leadership and management. Asking how we can bring about change in our own institutions, he highlighted the recently published WIB white paper, Untapped Potential.

“We are still learning how best to promote women’s empowerment,” Jason Hyland, deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo, told the 600-plus attendees during the opening ceremony. But he believes that both the United States and Japan share a “sense of fairness” when it comes to women in the workforce, and it is this sense of fairness that is key in creating a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Elizabeth Handover

Elizabeth Handover

Central themes that ran through the day were Japan’s risk-averse society, the idea that change cannot happen without risk, and the need for a concerted effort to make progressive changes—particularly when it comes to women in leadership positions. In the breakout session “Women in a Men’s World: How to Influence an Organization When You Are the Sole Representative / in a Minority,” three speakers shared their paths to success and some of the challenges they faced in being female and, in some cases, also a minority.

Rui Matsukawa, a Liberal Democrat Party member of the House of Councillors, explained that male leaders play a key role in these changes. “In politics or in the ministry, the change was brought by the top leaders . . . I think that’s really important,” she said, highlighting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as one such leader. But she emphasized that it is also up to women to meet the challenge, saying that “girls and women should take risks.”

Kyoko Hokugo

Kyoko Hokugo

In many industries, the scale is beginning to balance. Ana Wugofski, vice president of international development at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, used the aerospace and engineering industries as examples: “We’re close to getting that 30 percent tipping point,” she said, although there are still multiple factors to consider along with these changes.

Yuko Kawai, principal examiner in the Financial System and Bank Examination Department at the Bank of Japan, explained the struggles of being in the minority when she made it to the executive level. “I was the first female-something several times,” she said. As a result, she was “monitored all the time.”

Christopher J. LaFleur

Christopher J. LaFleur

The second morning breakout session, “Lifestyle Change: How Companies Can Help,” covered policies and programs that help staff meet the widening range of commitments—both in and out of the workplace. In a broader sense, corporate culture needs to be reassessed to meet these changes. Ryann Thomas, a partner at PwC, explained that the role of women is changing. “A larger role is being played by women in contributing to the family finances,” she said, adding that there is a need to equip organizations “with the tools—primarily technology and new cultural mindsets—to provide flexible work styles.” This will allow for a better work–life balance.

Moderator Alison Birch, managing director / head of human resources for Japan and North East Asia at J.P. Morgan, also raised the issue of finding a mentor that resonates with women in what is considered a man’s world. This was discussed in depth in the opening breakout session, “Driving Change: Fostering the Next Generation of Young Professionals,” which looked at the support and tools needed by the next generation of women leaders, as well as a valuable set of guidelines for sponsorship, mentorship, and coaching.

Mari Matthews

Mari Matthews

Makiko Tachimori (Fukui), president of Harmony Residence, Inc.—specialists in recruitment of qualified bilingual female candidates—moderated the session. She explained that, from a recruitment viewpoint, she sees a difference in behavior between men and women when looking to move up the career ladder.

“Women tend to be less aggressive and more hesitant to challenge themselves with a new career when they do not have the experience, whereas men aren’t,” she explained. “Most men will answer ‘Yes, I can manage that’ without hesitation. By looking thoroughly at these women’s resumes, we see that these women have the full potential, and all they need is to think more positively and get rid of their fears.”

The day also held two breakout sessions that focused on providing more practical steps toward making a change and providing support for women in the workplace. “Barrier Busting: Supporting Women to Unlock Their Leadership Potential” and “I Can, I Will: Manage Your Mindset and Advance Your Career,” provided managers with a set of coaching techniques to support potential female leaders and offered attendees practical advice on career development for non-managerial employees.

According to Thomas, part of changing the female mindset toward work is “encouraging them to consider promotions and higher goals / responsibilities in the organization than perhaps they would otherwise have considered.”

The session “Top Down Change: What Do Women Add to Boards?” examined how women contribute to the health of different companies and looked at the new corporate governance code, again tackling the topic of women in leadership positions.

Ana M. Wugofski and Yuko Kawai speak at the plenary session.

Ana M. Wugofski and Yuko Kawai speak at the plenary session.

Considering this need for change in corporate culture, the session “Culture Change: Unconscious Bias and Inclusive Leadership” was crucial in looking at the different unconscious biases in the workplace, and how to prevent these views from impacting the efforts being made to increase diversity. The discussion gave the audience practical advice and outlined steps to address these workplace issues.

Miwa Kato, UN Women regional director for Asia Pacific, encouraged attendees to take positive steps towards making the changes that are needed to empower women in the workplace. “We can come together with the business community to make actual differences and to give encouraging examples of what can be done.” She added that, in Japan, it is common to think that “risk-taking is something you want to avoid. But if you keep doing that, then change won’t come.”

This was echoed by Tachimori (Fukui), who told women aiming to advance their careers to just say, “Yes I can.” Her advice is to “go out there and get your chance. There are more and more companies looking to hire those positive, fearless women who will say ‘Yes I can!’”

Maxine Cheyney is staff writer and subeditor for The Journal
Central themes that ran through the day were Japan’s risk-averse society, the idea that change cannot happen without risk, and the need for a concerted effort to make progressive changes