The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Time to Shine

Symposium stresses importance of top-down change

By Elizabeth Handover

According to a 2011 report by McKinsey & Company, Inc., women at that time made up nearly 50 percent of the US workforce and owned 30 percent of small businesses that generated $1,200 trillion a year in sales.

By contrast, the Asia–Pacific region loses up to $89 billion in GDP every year due to restrictions on women’s ability to fully participate in the economy.

Sachin Shah, CEO of MetLife Japan, is serious about pushing women’s empowerment, and enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to support WAW! Tokyo 2014, the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo, by hosting the symposium “A Society Where Women Shine and My Career.” In his opening speech, Shah stressed the importance of private–public partnerships to meet Japan’s 2020 goals.

Kuni Sato, ambassador for women, human rights and humanitarian affairs, and press secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, spoke about the Japanese government’s three pillars for growth: providing tax and subsidy incentives to women-friendly companies; supporting women according to their life stages; and creating an environment for balancing work and child rearing for both men and women.

Following the keynote speeches, I moderated a panel discussion with Naina Lal Kidwai, director and chairman, India, at HSBC Asia-Pacific; Jesper Koll, managing director and head of research at JPMorgan Securities Japan Co., Ltd.; and Maria Morris, executive vice president, global employee benefits, at MetLife, Inc.

I started by asking Koll if he believes the Japanese government’s policies are actually working.

Noting that the landscape here has completely changed, he pointed to the six women selected for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet (now down to five), which serves as an important symbol. From his perspective, Japan will lose 250,000 workers every year for the next decade, and so has to use its labor force more effectively.

Morris added that global companies should think about bringing in best practices that are more attractive to women, as the talent war is real in this country.

She said that flexible work arrangements and HR policies are great on paper, but organizational culture is more influential, and oftentimes people are hesitant to take the benefits they are offered. Thus, it is imperative for senior managers to walk the talk, and to step out and demonstrate that they fully support best practices.

“When you have a female employee that needs time off to look after their sick kid, tell them that it’s fine to work from home. Do the same for the men. When a father wants to see his son play in a football match, encourage him so that everyone sees that flexibility is for all.”

Koll raised laughter when he suggested, “Do you really think that Japanese guys like hanging out with their colleagues every night until 10pm? It’s a serious drag!”

On seniority-based promotion, Koll said that jumping a step in Japan is very difficult and seniority-based promotion prevents managers from taking risks.

Again, the change has to come from top down. He said it is also up to women, who need to be prepared to go all the way and say, “Well, if you won’t offer me the promotion, then I’ll just have to go somewhere else.”

Kidwai added that the only way forward is a meritocracy with a transparent promotion process. Every organization should measure people based on their performance and what they can deliver. Both young men and women benefit when true organizational change occurs.

Morris stressed that transparency, increased communication, and open dialogue are necessary to bring about transformation. She told the audience that our panel discussion was actually a great example of completely open dialogue with no pre-scripted questions or answers!



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