The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is increasingly at the heart of corporate change. Recognizing the potential that has been overlooked for far too long, companies are crafting initiatives that aim to find better gender-balance in the workplace. This means not only opening up more opportunities to women, but, in countries such as Japan, it is key to shoring up a shrinking workforce.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) is highly active in this area, advocating for women in business (WIB) through its annual WIB Summits, collaboration with Japanese business and government, and white papers such as the recently published Women in Business Toolkit Untapping Potential: Case Studies, a survey that provides examples of concrete business initiatives to increase the number of women in management and leadership roles in Japan.

WCD Chief Executive Officer Susan C. Keating

The ACCJ is certainly not alone in its efforts, and on February 22 Tokyo played host to WomenCorporateDirectors (WCD), an organization whose members serve on more than 8,500 public and private boards across six continents. Representing women leaders in business, the West Palm Beach, FL-based WCD comprises chief executives, board chairs and members, lead directors, C-suite executives, and heads of global divisions in the major indices.

With the goal of increasing representation of women on boards and in leadership positions, the WCD holds many regional events, as well as a global gathering. Through these occasions, the group provides research and tools for women directors regarding leadership, strategy and operations, as well as best governance practices.

The WCD’s 2019 Asia–Pacific Institute was held at The Westin Tokyo, in the Ebisu district of Tokyo, with the theme “Resilient Leadership for a Disruptive Era.” A variety of esteemed speakers gave talks on how their companies are implementing gender diversity. The ACCJ Journal attended to explore the range of panels that featured in-depth discussions about developing technologies and how women continue to seek an equal place at decision-making levels.

Nancy Calderon, partner at global auditor KPMG, moderated the first panel discussion entitled “Almost Human: The Age of Applied Intelligence.” Joining the panel to consider the impact artificial intelligence (AI) will have on D&I and unconscious bias were Jennifer C. Chen, partner in intellectual property at global law firm Vinson & Elkins, and Yumi Clark, vice president of product and solutions at Visa Worldwide, Japan.

Clark explained that “90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the past year, and 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day.” With so much data available—and multiplying exponentially—the abilities of AI are growing rapidly and its incorporation, along with other disruptive technologies, into everyday business is unstoppable.

The panel also discussed how AI could benefit businesses and consumers and eliminate unconscious biases in general. They used call centers as an example. “Think about the pre­judices or biases we all have about calling call centers and dealing with somebody that does not speak our language,” said Calderon. “We can now train computers to answer the phone and talk to you in your dialect.” Speaking with a bot, she said, will eliminate communication issues, because it will be able to adjust its language settings to suit the caller. It will also encourage efficiency due to its quick, factual responses.

“Often when people hear about things such as this from a customer service perspective, they think machine learning is taking over,” Calderon added. And there is a disconnect between how workers and bosses see the role AI will play. While 60 percent of HR workers believe that AI will take jobs from humans, 62 percent of CEOs believe the technology will create jobs.

How can that be? While some jobs may become auto­mated, others that still require a human touch will become more important. Scientists and engineers, for example, will be in higher demand. This shift opens up new avenues and approaches to training, and the panel discussed how it creates an opportunity to bring more underrepresented groups into the workforce.

The second panel discussion, entitled “Adapting Technology for Aging Labor Markets,” focused on how tech advances can be utilized to benefit Japan’s aging labor force. Moderated by Peta Latimer, chief executive officer of HR consultancy Mercer Singapore, the panel comprised Johnson & Johnson K.K. Vision Care Company President Ikuko Ebihara, International Finance Corporation Singapore Country Manager Rana Karadsheh, and Jean Moe, chief executive officer of beauty care company Dames.

“Asia is the fastest-aging region in the world. Between now and 2030, the elderly population, [those aged 65 and over] will increase by 71 percent. That differs from the United States, which is only expected to increase 55 percent and Europe at 31 percent,” Latimer said in opening the discussion. The panel then explored how emerging technologies are helping this group participate in Japan’s aging workforce. Digital communication and handheld devices, for example, are making it easier for elderly people who cannot commute but can still participate and contribute to work.

Educating the elderly in such fields that contribute to tech­nology and digital advancements is one way in which Japan can sustain its workforce and cope with the shortage of young talent in Japan.

Nurturing the young talent that the country does have is critical, of course, and introducing coding to children was noted as a great way to prepare them for the future. Encourage young girls to get involved in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is also an aim of many education programs around the world. Hands-on participation in technology ensures an informed generation of future workers, and STEM-focused programs help level the gender balance in key fields.

While coding may seem complex, educators are finding ways to form natural connections between it and very young children. One attendee shared a personal story involving a toy made by US toymaker Fisher-Price. “I gave my granddaughter a Code-a-Pillar. A three-year-old is able to program it by following specific, easy directions that are color coded, and make it crawl. So, at three, in a very informal way, children are learning—girls are learning—to code.”

Yukari Inoue, managing director of Kellogg (Japan) GK and co-chair of the WCD’s Japan chapter, spoke to The ACCJ Journal about how Japan’s older generations are much more open and willing to get involved with technology than is generally thought. She believes that, if devices suitable for them are made more readily available, these people will utilize them and be able to continue as active contributors to the workforce.

“Docomo developed a smartphone for elder people. Its simpler and easier to operate, and carries very basic functions. They can see bigger characters, and the icons are much more visible,” she explained. “That really encouraged senior people to start utilizing it.”

Izumi Kobayashi, vice-chair of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), external director of ANA Holdings Inc. and Mitsui & Co. Ltd., and co-chair of the WCD’s Japan chapter, expanded on these comments, relating the disruption in today’s world to the function of business. “We need to understand how it will change our business models, and how we should change and use newer technologies in business.” This is something the WCD believes lies at the board level.

Charles Lake, president of Aflac International and chairman of Aflac Japan

Charles Lake, president of Aflac International and chairman of Aflac Japan, delivered a luncheon keynote speech about how diversity promotes inclusion and, in turn, makes for a good business strategy. For Aflac, D&I is seen not just as a matter of equality, but as crucial to the company’s success.

“To address the social power, we first must promote diversity and work smart. That will lead to economic growth,” he said. Sharing how the US insurance company has embraced gender parity within the workforce, he added: “We promoted the first woman to a manager position in 1977. We should have promoted earlier.”

The keyword that drives Aflac, Lake explained, is SMART, which stands for:

See the big picture

Maintain focus

Act with initiative

Respect dialogue

Think time-value

The acronym is used by the company as a basic policy of how to work. It encourages each employee to improve their productivity and to add value to their work. It also pushes the company to foster a better work–life balance for employees.

WCD Chief Executive Officer Susan C. Keating shared with The ACCJ Journal her thoughts on developing technologies and the opportunities they present to women and other underrepresented groups.

“The number of women, compared with men, who are skilled and have experience with leading-edge technologies is not where it should be. I would say that, as we think about technology, one of the things we need to consider is what we need to do to get more versed and use our understanding to predict where technology is headed.”

Keating believes that doing so depends on company board members and the decision-making that comes from higher up.

“Do those board members have enough understanding of the changes that are taking place, the acceleration of those changes, the implications for business and industries, and the disruption occurring that they can make thoughtful and informed decisions to help lead the future of those companies?”

She asked this while emphasizing how important it is for board members to embrace this disruptive era, and utilize the right talent to make sure they thrive.

On May 19–22, the WCD will be holding its Global Institute. To reposition themselves in the age of disruptive tech­­­nology, the group is moving the annual event from New York City, where it has been held nearly every year since 2001, to Silicon Valley.

The move highlights the growing number of opportunities available to women in startup companies, and how involving women in these tech projects can not only encourage gender diversity, but also boost the growth potential of new ventures.

“We want to make a statement that we have all these qua­lified women who are here—some of the most successful, powerful women in the world—and they are available,” said Keating.

Megan Casson is a staff writer at Custom Media for The ACCJ Journal.