The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Among the fears that most young women face when entering the job market are those related to job prospects, expectations, and the challenges of a competitive professional world.

The burden of this uncertainty is heightened for young women in Japan, where the battle for female involvement in the workplace and in leadership roles is still apparent.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) has hosted the World Assembly for Women (WAW!) for the past four years.

Last year, the topic of women in leadership was discussed extensively. The consensus was that there is a need for more mentors and role models, and for better support for women pursuing careers and leadership roles.

Changing the mentality of both men and women is crucial, as is purging society of ingrained, defunct work culture and practices.

“A lot of support still needs to go toward helping women in the workforce gain the self-belief that they can successfully navigate rewarding career paths,” said Jin Song Montesano, chief public affairs officer at LIXIL Group Corporation.

A lack of confidence to pursue careers and to take on leadership roles is an inherent problem.

Montesano recalled offering a role to a female member of her team.

“She refused the promotion because she believed she wasn’t qualified for a bigger role. I was surprised at first—frustrated even. Who doesn’t want to be promoted?

“But, of course, this was my own unconscious bias. After probing a bit more to better understand her thinking, I realized she had legitimate fears. She did not want to be regarded as a nabakari kanrishyoku, or ‘manager in name only.’ This person thought the promotion was simply to meet the company quota.”

Sarah McKensey, HR leader for supply chain at Johnson & Johnson Japan, described the concept of senpai as another barrier. A shift in mind-set within companies is needed to break down traditional beliefs such as “only tenure can result in seniority.”

Kentaro Sawa, manager of career development at Temple University, Japan Campus, suggested that, unlike male students, many females find it harder to envision being in managerial positions.

“I think it is just because they have more chances to see male managers . . . they do not see many female middle managers,” he said, addressing the disproportionate number of male role models present in media.

An underlying issue discussed at the most recent WAW! conference is the lack of affordable childcare options for working women, and the need to involve men in child-rearing.

The number of child-rearing years a woman has falls as many men begin to gain traction in their careers, and some women find they must put their careers on hold at this point. This pause is lengthened by expectations that they will take on the role of caregiver for aging parents.

“Guess who society depends on to fulfill their needs? Mainly Japanese women—many of whom move right from their child-rearing years into parent caregiving years with very little time in between,” Debbie Howard, chairman at The Carter Group, Carter JMRN KK explained.

David Swan, managing director of Robert Walters Japan, suggested that many of the necessary societal changes cannot be achieved by companies alone.

He emphasized that “less pressure” should be put on women to assume these societal stereotypes.

Professor Megumi Taoka, Graduate School of Management, GLOBIS University, said she finds many graduates see themselves as “competent” individuals and are aware of their choices.

However, “What they are careful about is [not] getting trapped in a wrong environment that stifles their advancement.”

In many ways, it is down to businesses to incorporate the right infrastructure to support women at work and create an environment that promotes equal opportunities.

This was stressed at the 2016 WAW! Conference and the need for transparency with data, more flexible work styles, and a better childcare leave system were pinpointed.

Swan said one way of doing this was to “roll out an evaluation system to assess employees based on their performance, regardless of seniority, age, or gender.”

Clint Navales, associate director of communications at Procter & Gamble Japan K.K. added, “Systems that are agile to address the changing needs of women across life stages are also important.”

Just as in many international companies, this line of thinking is making its way into mainstream consciousness.

“The role of management and HR is critical in realizing this,” stressed Kenya Yoshino, manager of the Career Office at GLOBIS University’s Graduate School of Management.

Also important is the overhaul of certain aspects of the workplace. As Associate Professor Lailani Alcantara said, “Some organizational practices that are used as criteria for career advancement, such as overtime culture and job rotation, put women at a disadvantage.” Alcantara teaches marketing and organizational behavior at the College of International Management at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

The Japanese government is implementing various ways to ensure reforms, including the Declaration on Action, which sees male leaders signing an agreement to promote women in the workplace.

Johnson & Johnson’s McKensey reinforced the need for change to come from the top. “Companies that have sponsorship and leadership from the C-suite—championing the belief that diversity is a business opportunity—combined with a culture of inclusion,” can actually make substantial change she said.

Yoshino also highlighted the benefits of having more women in the workforce. He said this means men can “live a more free and diverse work life,” and can “live beyond the social expectation to behave as a strong, hard-working male figure.”

Montesano acknowledged that companies must create an environment that prioritizes learning and development while recognizing that “men and women have different constraints, approaches, and needs to truly excel.”

In addition, Sawa suggested, “If we can hire managers from the mid-career tenshoku market more, where people can change their work–life balance based on their life stage, more women will stay in the workforce and take managerial roles.”

Japan holds some of the highest figures in the world for the number of students graduating from high school and enrolling in universities, both public and private.

“It’s not the education and preparation,” Howard emphasized, “it’s the system [in Japanese companies] that does not support women to move into, and upward in, careers as much as it could.”

“Japanese [companies]—even when they proclaim they are moving forward with hiring females—are less accustomed to integrating women into their workforces,” she said. “They may thus find difficulties and subtle resistance points within their organizations.”

This is where sharing practices and transparency is key.

Amid the criticisms, there are companies that are beginning to implement practical policies which are bearing results.

A focus on valuing performance, productivity, and overall contribution to the company must be assessed, rather than long work hours.

Stan Crow, chief executive of Northrop Grumman Japan, said that although international companies also have a long way to go, many are making conscious efforts to provide mentors and role models for our young female staff.

“We always ensure that these senior colleagues make time for the women in our office to talk about their careers and share experience. It is activities like these that support the young women in our company in Japan.”

Masami Katakura, Managing Partner of Brand, Marketing and Communication at EY Japan, highlighted EY’s career counselor service, which is offered to all employees.

“They can ask for counselors with particular experiences. For example, an employee who has brought up a child or those who have worked abroad—ultimately a counselor who has a career similar to what an individual employee is aiming for,” she said.

Of course, this goes hand in hand with providing opportunities for women to take on leadership roles. McKensey said that Johnson & Johnson is “identifying top talent earlier in career,” and various programs are in place “to accelerate key talent in preparation for leadership roles.”

And the benefits of having more women in the workplace are tangible.

Howard suggested that international and foreign companies in general do a much better job of providing women with opportunities equal to those of their male counterparts.

These companies, she said, “benefit greatly from their broader-minded policies, experiencing heightened profits and morale in the long term.”

Temple University’s Sawa echoed this strength in diversity. Many international companies have learned that “the more diverse its employees are, the more powerful and better the company is.”

LIXIL’s Montesano agreed that corporate Japan has much to gain from a highly educated workforce of women. “The team is full of new ideas and creative solutions,” she said of her own team. “We also see more open and spontaneous collaboration across teams, divisions, and even markets.”

Northrop Grumman’s Crow highlighted a study released in February 2016, conducted jointly by EY and the Washington DC-based non-profit group Peterson Institute for International Economics. It states that “more women in top management was correlated with higher profitability.”

A shift is also needed in the recruitment of women. As GLOBIS University’s Yoshino explained, many companies want to avoid a “loss in the workforce,” and so the recruitment of too many women is sometimes avoided.

However, it is widely agreed that applicants should be assessed based on their abilities and experience, not on gender or the status or name of the university they attended.

As with many things, education is key. The right environment and the best information is what will foster a healthy mindset for women in Japan.

Thus, educational institutions should provide some of the training, support, and tools needed to succeed at and after university.

“Although Japanese corporations are being attacked for this issue of a lack of women in the workforce, including in managerial positions, I think educational institutions should also take responsibility,” Sawa admitted.

It is important for educational institutions to cultivate an international mindset in students.

“Encouraging women to be involved in an international sphere is a quicker way to increase the number of female managers in companies, than waiting for society to change,” Sawa said.

Along with the need for more female leaders, Taoka believes that, when it comes to business education, “we all need to understand more about men, not women, as the nature of men has been the dominant underlying context for business and social practices in Japan over the decades.”

At Temple University, Japanese female students are actively encouraged to take internships at international companies where they can get work experience but also “see and learn from successful female managers to envision their own future goals,” Sawa said.

The media also play a role in how the public views women in the workplace. Taoka expressed her concerns that there is an unnecessary division of gender issues in the media.

In addition, “young people, both male and female, are tired of the idea of ‘female champions’ or ‘superwomen,’ and not interested in sugar-coated portraits,” she said.

The Journal spoke with two Asia Pacific University (APU) alumni to find out what fears they think young women have when entering the workforce today.

“Many Japanese women look only for temporary jobs after graduating and do not fully consider having a long-term career. They already expect that, once they have a child, they will become housewives,” explained Balica Alexandra-Maria, an APU alumni working in marketing and sales in Japan.

Jiji Teenida, who works in the telecommunications industry, added that the insecure mentality many women have is a barrier to growth.

“Women in Japan tend to believe they are not capable of [filling] leader roles compared to men, which leads them not to have a desire to reach the top.”

Change is coming, albeit slowly. Mike Myers, associate professor at Showa University’s International Exchange Center, said, “a lot more [young] women are interested in entering the workforce and having a career.”

With a continuous open dialogue, young women in Japan who are starting their careers should find more options and fewer restrictions. Societal changes will take more time, and working with both the media and educational institutions is pivotal.

EY Japan’s Katakura said: “In international organizations, more than in Japanese organizations, there is a respect for real efficiency and competency at work. If you are competent, even if you are young, there is a likelihood you will be provided with opportunities.”

Japanese companies should take heed of the efforts that many international companies are making regarding these issues, to support young Japanese women who are entering the job market.

As Taoka stated, “[Young women] would not mind working hard for a great career, but would be disappointed if their employers did not believe in the same and try to limit their possibilities in any way.”

Maxine Cheyney is a staff writer at The Journal.