The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) has long been dedicated to promoting the advancement of women in the workplace, and the Women in Business (WIB) Committee has encouraged progress through its white papers and numerous events, such as the Women in Business Summit, Bella Nova Nights networking sessions, and lun­cheons featuring guest speakers who inspire by sharing their experiences and advice.

The latest such event took place on August 20 when Goldman Sachs Japan Vice Chair Kathy Matsui spoke at a WIB Coffee & Conversation webinar. Matsui, who is also co-head of macro research in Asia and chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs, talked about her new book, How to Nurture Female Employees. The discussion, which was moderated by news presenter Yuka Sato, focused on what has changed since Matsui wrote her groundbreaking report entitled “Womenomics” in 1999 and covered topics such as unconscious bias and changes companies can make to better foster gender diversity.

Matsui began by discussing how to ensure that female employees are being nurtured in their roles to improve their career pro­gression. Having built a long and successful career for herself, she has worked tirelessly to advocate gender equality and workplace opportunities for women.

“What I was struck by was, even if we had the most perfect external environment or infrastructure for women to thrive in Japan, there is still a struggle inside organizations. How are women’s careers managed? What kind of mentorship or sponsorship are they being provided? That kind of guidance is an area that, frankly, the government has very little capability of intervening in with policy measures,” she said. “So, I really wanted to share some tips, lessons learned, and mistakes I’ve made working in a pretty male-dominated industry in Japan for 30 years.”

She also highlighted the importance of diversity and inclu­sion regarding women in business, as well as other minor­ity groups, and how it benefits companies in terms of busi­ness growth.

“Of course, diversity is not just defined as women. We have the LGBTQ+ community, we have foreigners in Japan, we have persons with disabilities. It’s a very broad range,” she said. “But, to me, we have seen enough evidence, or empirical studies, globally—and we’ve done work here in Japan—to prove empirically that more diverse management and more diverse leadership is positively correlated with higher returns on equity. For example, profitability, higher revenue growth, and better stock performance.”

It has been argued that Japan’s male-dominated environment has worked. The country did very well with such a labor force in the years following World War II. However, as Matsui pointed out, not all good things last forever, and not all models have that longevity. “If you’re in a rocket ship and you’re blasting away at a 45-degree angle, of course that is the right model. Continue to do what you have been doing, because that rocket ship is going up,” she said. “But what if that rocket ship starts to plateau and go south?” she asked, noting that the aging population is predicted to cause Japan’s workforce to shrink by a massive 40 percent by 2055.

“If that rocket ship is now plateauing and going south, you cannot continue to do the things you were doing yesterday, or even today, and expect that you’re going to grow tomorrow without some new ideas. And where does that injection of creativity and innovation come from? In most cases, I think it comes from people with different backgrounds.”

What has Matsui seen in terms of changes since the publication of “Womenomics” in 1999?

“As many of you are aware, over 20 years ago, Japan’s female labor participation rate—the percentage of Japanese women who were working outside the home—was about 56 percent. Fast forward to 2019, and the latest data show that it has risen to about 71–72 percent,” she said. “It has really skyrocketed, particularly in the past six or seven years and, in fact, surpasses the same rate in the United States, where I come from, of 66 percent and the average for Europe, which stands at 63 percent. So, since 2013, in fact, about 3.3 million jobs for Japanese women have been created.”

She then talked about the issue of transparency regarding the Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace, which took effect in 2016. The law states that if you have an organization—public or private—with more than 300 employees, you are obligated to disclose some gender-related statistics and are encouraged to set gender-diversity targets and goals.

“Now, of course, as an analyst and a person outside trying to assess industries and companies, it has been a challenge, because the data provided by companies is not standard—so companies can disclose whatever gender statistics they like—and there’s obviously no sort of punishment, legally, if a company refuses to disclose any data.”

However, she emphasized, parental-leave benefits have improved. Twenty years ago, they were, at best, on a par with just the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development standard. “Today, the level of benefits is one of the top-ranked in the developed world. Mother and father each get one year of parental leave. And in terms of the monetary compensation, they each are entitled to roughly 60 percent of their pre-leave pay.”

Matsui also spoke about areas where she believes there has been a lack of progress, beginning with the quality of available jobs. More than half of Japanese women working today do so in part-time rather than full-time positions.

“The main reason why Japan always comes up very low in most gender equality rankings is that the leadership representation of Japanese females is still very low.” Still only about 13 percent of women are in managerial positions, and a mere five percent sit on boards. The government set a goal of increasing the number of women in leadership positions to at least 30 percent by 2020, but, recently, quietly abandoned it. The new target is 2030.

Sato asked Matsui whether she had advice for professional women who feel they are struggling with their own career progression.

“Don’t strive for perfection, or you will just simply drive yourself crazy,” she said, also pointing out that “it’s not about self-promotion, it’s about awareness and building, and edu­cating your colleagues about who you are.”

She also shared some bad advice that she once had been given: If you keep your head down and work hard, you will go far.

“Terrible, terrible advice. Not the work hard part, because you obviously need to be excellent at whatever you do, but the keeping the head down part is terrible advice,” she said.

This kind of mentality, she explained, will result in you waiting for an invisible hand to raise you from your current position to a higher one. “In most organizations, it does not happen that way, does it? Obviously, be excellent at what you do, but always keep the antenna up. Talk to people, figure out where you are positioned in a team or an organization, and ask yourself what may lie out there. What are the next opportunities for you?”

Megan Casson is a staff
writer at Custom Media for
The ACCJ Journal.
It’s not about self-promotion, it’s about awareness and building, and educating your colleagues about who you are.