The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

For Akiko Karaki, breaking Japan’s so-called rice-paper ceiling, which limits female advancement, started with a letter from her grandmother.

“My grandmother had fairly progressive perspectives in educating her daughters, but after all, they were still expected to get married and take care of their families. So when I got my law degree from Columbia Law School, she wrote me a rare and very moving letter saying she could never have imagined her granddaughter going abroad and getting a degree. It was like a dream,” Karaki recalled.

Currently a Tokyo-based partner at PwC Strategy&, a global consulting team, Karaki is part of a new wave of female leaders who are challenging stereotypes as Japan finally starts to capitalize on its long-neglected female labor force.

According to a 2014 report by Kathy Matsui, vice chair of Goldman Sachs Japan and chief Japan equity strategist for Global Investment Research (GIR) at Goldman Sachs, closing the gender gap could deliver an additional 7 million workers and provide a 13 percent boost to gross domestic product. This potential economic bonus has helped spur Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s so-called Womenomics policy. The report, Womenomics 4.0: Time to Walk the Talk, proposes a three-pronged solution to Japan’s gender gap.

Womenomics helped the female participation rate rise to 66 percent in 2014—higher than that of Italy—compared with 63 percent in 2010. Yet the scale of the challenge is shown by Japan’s lowly ranking of 101st out of 145 nations on the latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, well behind even other Asian countries such as the Philippines and Thailand.

Abe’s goal of filling 30 percent of senior positions in the public and private sectors with women by 2020 has already been cut to just 7 percent for government jobs and 15 percent for companies. This is building from a low base, with a McKinsey study conducted in 2011 finding that just 1 percent of corporate executive posts in Japan were held by women, compared with 9 percent in China and 15 percent in Singapore.

Despite the opening of more than 400 new nurseries in fiscal 2014, around 72,000 children reportedly remain on waiting lists for childcare. And although 61 percent of Japanese women held a tertiary degree in 2012—well above the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 45 percent—they dominate the lower-paid, part-time jobs that account for 30 percent of the labor force, suggesting that the nation’s female talent is being badly underutilized.

While childcare is available for up to 80 percent of Japanese children aged 3 to 5 years, Karaki said the figure drops to just 30 percent for those younger and older than this group. In comparison, countries such as Sweden offer support all the way through age 8 for more than 70 percent of children.

“Japan as a society is still based on the understanding that women will be there as housewives to support the male breadwinner, and public childcare is only there to support the poor. But that’s not the case anymore. Society is changing and the nation needs to provide good and affordable support to all families,” she said.

Karaki added that corporate support—in terms of flexible working arrangements, mentors, and work sponsors—has proven crucial to her career. An understanding family has also been key. She said friends have switched from Japanese companies to foreign ones based on the latter’s more child-friendly arrangements, such as allowing staff to work from home and not rating employees based on the amount of time spent in the office.

Naomi Matsuoka, chief strategy officer at AIG Japan, has also benefited from the more “female-friendly” policies adopted by foreign firms in Japan.

Matsuoka points to AIG Japan’s dedicated diversity champions along with its women’s development program. This program, backed by senior management, is aimed at fostering the next generation of female leaders and managers, and includes the creation of a business plan for a new product or service.

The program encompasses visits by senior female leaders from other organizations, such as the head of OECD Japan, as well as encouraging male mentors to learn from their female colleagues. With half of its workforce being female—mostly in non-managerial positions—Matsuoka says AIG is attempting to raise the proportion of women in senior roles by giving them the right experience and mindset, along with exposure to other female leaders.

“For Japanese companies, the challenge now is around retention and making sure female workers have a career path, education, and training. They need to be given the same exposure and opportunities, as well as having the right support, including having people they can go to for support in their careers,” she said.

On June 1, the ACCJ’s Women in Business Committee launched its new white paper, Untapped Potential, aimed at encouraging Japanese companies to follow the initiative set by their foreign counterparts in developing female-friendly workplaces.

The white paper lists 10 recommendations to help meet Abe’s original 30 percent target: reform of working hours; supporting “male champions of change”; encouraging men to be more active with housework; increasing transparency of female leadership roles; changing labor contracts; providing tax incentives; bringing seniors in for childcare support; easing restrictions on immigrant domestic workers; encouraging more talent management and training; and providing greater employee assistance.

Leanne Cutts, president and representative director of Mondelēz Japan, said the economic argument for Womenomics has already been made, and now it is time for companies and the government to deliver the necessary structural changes.

“The policy in Japan is actually very progressive; but if all you’re doing is tracking policy, you’re blind. What you need to track is if these policies are in use, such as whether staff are taking up flexible working or maternity leave. Digging under these policies can reveal quite a different picture, and companies need to find out what is making it work or not work,” Cutts explained.

A contributor to Break the Ceiling, Touch the Sky, business author Anthony A. Rose’s book about inspirational female leaders, Cutts said Mondelēz Japan has successfully raised its female leadership to 37 percent. Having a diversity target, individual plans for women on maternity leave, flexible working, and a performance-based culture that ensures equivalent promotion opportunities helped make this possible.

Will more local companies follow suit? Cutts suggested it might be inevitable for those seeking to attract the best of a shrinking talent pool in Japan.

“Companies that attract the best employees will be those that are more diverse, with a more open approach to development and growth. For any Japanese corporate leader who is responsible to shareholders, why wouldn’t they take some of these steps if they want their company to grow?”

Signs are emerging that corporate Japan is starting to heed the message. According to Japan’s Nikkei newspaper, Toyota Motor Corporation will introduce telecommuting as early as August, allowing around 25,000 career-track employees to work at the office “as little as two hours a week.”

AIG Japan’s Matsuoka said Japan can change when “everyone starts recognizing and aligning to that purpose.”

“Once Japan sees that purpose, and why and how it can be done, change will occur. We can take on diversity, flexibility, and globalization, as well as preserve our wonderful traditions and culture to create something stronger and better,” she said.

Breaking the ceiling? For many in Japan, the ceiling seems to be already gone. Now it is society’s turn to catch up and ensure that female talent is no longer wasted.

Anthony Fensom is a communication consultant/writer with experience in Australian/Asian financial and media industries, including six years in Tokyo.
Society is changing and the nation needs to provide good and affordable support to all families.