The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



25 Years at the Negotiating Table
USTR leader Wendy Cutler on getting ahead in male-dominated environments

By Elizabeth Handover

As a continuation of our Women in Business Committee star-studded roster of events, we were honored to host Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler as a keynote speaker on July 1 at the Tokyo American Club. Cutler is the highest-ranking career employee at the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

Owing to her 25 years of service at the agency, she has a wealth of knowledge and key insights on her experiences as a woman working in what continues to be very much a man’s world.

Cutler opened the roundtable discussion by quoting U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, who also made a surprise appearance at the event.

“Women’s empowerment is not just a women’s issue; it’s a men’s issue, a societal issue, and an economic issue,” she said. Cutler also shared a comment from President Barack Obama made during his recent White House Summit on Working Families: “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

At the USTR, great strides have been made. At present, about half of the agency’s senior officers are women, reinforcing Obama’s commitment to have the government workforce better reflect the gender composition of the United States.

Cutler has seen firsthand how women bring many skills to the negotiating table. We genuinely listen to speakers and respect them. We are good problem-solvers. We seek common ground and work at finding a “landing zone” for compromise. We can put ourselves in other people’s shoes and invest time on forging consensual agreements.

At the beginning, hers was not an easy journey. Cutler was challenged multiple times by male counterparts and was constantly tested. They would try to provoke emotions such as anger or tears—perhaps so they could then tell their superiors she wasn’t up to the task.

Undeterred by such provocations, Cutler has developed a three-part success strategy that can be utilized in any field of work.

1. Women should really understand themselves, do their homework, and know their materials when approaching the negotiating table.

2. Build close relationships with counterparts that are based on trust. It is tougher for a woman to develop these relationships with a man than it is for men to do among themselves. Thus, it’s often effective to take an interest in topics like the World Cup that can provide easy conversation points.

3. Women must present themselves as firm yet pleasant. She related how her smile can be effectively disarming when the other side expects the USTR to present a stern front.

Cutler’s respect for her female counterparts on the Japan side is boundless. She believes Japanese women hold the keys to the country’s future.

While she is upbeat about the policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, she said real change in Japan’s bureaucracy is still needed, and that new attitudes and a transformation of mindsets are essential.

Substantial efforts are needed from everyone to find innovative ways for women to enter, remain in, and re-enter the workforce. More day-care and after-school care will make a big difference; so will better promotion of women in the workplace. Mentorship is also key, she said, and more mentoring by both men and women will help.

“First and foremost, it is time for Japan to shorten working hours,” she said, as women continue to be at a disadvantage under the present situation. Implementing more flexible working policies such as telecommuting will support a better work–life balance and benefit men as well as women.

Cutler ended by expressing her hope that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will provide a deadline and stimulus for swifter empowerment of women—a win/win for working women and Japan. •



Elizabeth Handover is co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee and president of Intrapersona K.K., Lumina Learning Asia Partner.