The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The topic of women in the workforce is certainly gaining traction in Japan. Since last year’s American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Women in Business (WIB) Summits, many businesses have begun making the changes necessary to create more diverse and inclusive work environments and tapping into the female population.

The conversation was given new life at the WIB Summits in Chubu (July), Kansai (September), and Tokyo (October), with the range of companies, keynote speakers, and attendees a testament to the progress made and potential for change.

The summit’s opening sessions included speeches from Mayor of Yokohama Fumiko Hayashi (Tokyo); President of Proctor and Gamble Japan K.K. Stanislav Vecera (Kansai); and President of 3M Japan Limited Denise Rutherford (Chubu).

A constant underlying theme—and one crucial to changing wider corporate culture in Japan—was work-style reform. Creating a workplace that is more palatable to women was also addressed as a key mechanism.

Speaking to The ACCJ Journal about the Kansai summit, Nuala Connolly, chief of staff in the CEO Office at AIG Japan Holdings KK, commended the range of speakers from companies spanning many industries that are championing various initiatives taken in their approach to work–style reform.

“There were some good ideas shared, and it underlined the very powerful shift that is going on across all areas of business in Japan in reassessing the workplace and how to attract and retain talent,” Connolly explained.

A core focus at the Chubu summit was lifestyle reform and the role of male champions of change, a discussion that found its way into many sessions at the Tokyo summit.

About the key focus of the Chubu summit, Nao Geisler, president of the Geisler Group Inc., said: “This year’s theme was delivered by a panel of male champions of change, and an outstanding list of speakers and presenters from around the globe. Our keynote speaker, 3M Japan Limited President Denise Rutherford, provided both theory and practical knowledge on the need for, and benefits of, a more diverse Japanese corporate culture.”

Creating a more diverse workplace requires the work of both men and women, and this was highlighted at all three summits.

The Tokyo summit held a breakout session titled “Ikuboss and Ikumen: How Diversity Benefits Men and Organizations, Too.” The term ikuboss, new to many, encompasses the role of male business leaders in providing a place for employees to have a healthy work–life balance and achieve their career goals.

Speakers shared their companies’ efforts to introduce programs related to caring for the elderly, flexible work schedules, and paternity and maternity leave as ways to address the needs of all staff.

“I am a husband, I am a father, and I choose to spend my days working for IBM,” Zane Zumbahlen, vice president of human resources at IBM Japan, Ltd. said. Talking about the efforts made at IBM to support women in the workforce, he said, “We’ve built up an environment where we can move strong, powerful, and capable women through it.”

Natsuko Yasuhara, senior manager, Learning & Effectiveness/Diversity, Human Resources at Eli Lilly Japan K.K., who attended the Kansai summit’s plenary session “How You Can Make a Difference—Personal Perspective,” said that regular work practices, such as having lunch sessions instead of drinking parties in the evening, must also be addressed.

And the idea of fairness is another key point that was mentioned at the Kansai summit by Chika Hirata, statutory executive officer and senior vice president, chief legal officer at MetLife Insurance K.K.

However, changing work culture is difficult, and Makoto Kawai, who attended the session “Addressing the Influence of Culture on Work Style Reform” at the Kansai summit, highlighted the cultural complexities that exist when it comes to work culture. “Learning about the difficulty of changing cultures—especially changing social culture—is time-consuming, [and] the session made me realize, again, the challenges of changing work style.”

For many women, returning to the workforce is difficult, and insufficient childcare options—a serious problem in Japan—exacerbates the situation. The challenges of leaving the workforce to raise children—and then returning—was discussed during the Tokyo summit breakout session “Returning to the Workforce: Changing Internal and External Perceptions, the Benefits of ‘Off-Ramping’.”

Miwa Tanaka, co-founder and co-CEO of Waris Co. Ltd. said, “Off-ramping really makes it difficult to rejoin the workforce so, in order to keep working, you should set your work style according to the stage of your life.” She mentioned remote working, managed workloads, and freelancing as options.

Moderator Cynthia Usui asked the panelists whether being a housewife is a legitimate option for a woman.

The panelists agreed that it is a matter of choice and depends on the life stage of each person, and that the role of a housewife should not be diminished. As Sachiko Izumi, statutory executive officer, senior vice president, and head of risk management at MetLife Insurance K.K. said, “Your smallest society is the family unit and contributing to the family unit means you are contributing to society.”

But how far are we from achieving parity? For Ryann Thomas, partner at PwC and co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee, this is by no means the tip of the iceberg.

“No matter how often we repeat the discussion, there continues to be inherent unconscious bias in many areas of the Japanese corporate environment,” she said. Training needs to continue, and the demands for concrete solutions will mold further WIB summits.

At the Tokyo summit, Thomas highlighted two topics: an ageless workforce and building your brand. “These new topics proved very popular, and we are planning to take them forward outside of the summit to address the positive response from summit attendees.”

“Building Your Brand: Creating a Memorable Professional Identity,” featured a lively discussion about the lack of a personal brand among Japanese employees—particularly women.

Jin Montesano of LIXIL Group Corporation suggested: “Be a star. Be something that you are excellent at. Be something and strive for that [and] learn and develop your skills in those areas.” Montesano is LIXIL’s chief public affairs officer, executive officer, and senior managing director.

This idea of focusing on specific skills is one the panelists believe is important. Erika Irish Brown, global head of diversity and inclusion at Bloomberg L.P., said: “You should know what your online presence looks like, because that is definitely part of your personal brand. You should Google yourself.”

Confidence and help from both female and male mentors are key. At the Tokyo breakout session “Ageless Workforce: Profile of an Employee c.2030,” Helen Bentley, vice president at global strategic communications company Finsbury, stressed “mentors need to invest in the younger generation.” Mentorship and role models are key mechanisms in instilling confidence in women in the workforce.

Merle Aiko Okawara, chairman of JC Comsa Corporation, added: “The mentor–mentee relationship is a two-way street. It cannot only be one-way . . . you have to realize that everyone who you would want to be a mentor is very busy. So, you need to think what can you offer the mentor.”

Evidence has proven that companies which embrace diversity and create an environment of inclusiveness reap the rewards in business.

But it was suggested at the breakout session “Inequality in HR Systems: How Not to Maintain the Status Quo” that many companies in Japan are not ready for more women or new generations in the workforce. Kats Sugita, head of HR at Microsoft Japan Co., Ltd., said, “One big topic is that our managers are not ready to respond to the fresh generation, and they still believe female employees don’t want to be promoted.

He later added: “Business leaders have to understand how important diversity and inclusion is, and if business leaders and top leaders are really not open to new initiatives, I think it is almost impossible to make any changes. I think diversity and inclusion is a cultural thing and a leadership thing—strong leadership is really needed.”

Janelle Sasaki, executive director of gender brand, marketing and communications at EY Advisory and Consulting Co., Ltd., said that diversity and inclusion is not just an HR initiative, it is also a business strategy. “By being diverse and inclusive, we can tap into the human potential. We can become innovative and impact the bottom line. So, we need both inclusion and diversity to be successful in Japan.”

Ultimately, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure that employee needs are met. David Nichols, president and representative director at State Street Global Markets (Japan) said, “The company is responsible for trying to figure out what is important to their employees, and making sure to see if they can give them the opportunity to make that happen.”

Looking ahead, businesses and individuals need to take it upon themselves to implement change, and management within organizations needs to show their support. Nadine Slater, founder and executive coach at leadership advisor Excel with Purpose explained: “It doesn’t matter where an initiative starts. From one particular employee to the board, it makes no difference. It needs to be well-lived and supported by management, and it needs to be communicated well.”

The summits are showing more results, and are growing as a platform for further conversation. Makiko Tachimori (Fukui), president at Harmony Residence Inc., a recruitment company for women, certainly feels the positive impact of the summits.

“We had some great feedback from the attendees, which gave me courage and positivity to move forward, not giving up what I am challenging now, and relief to know there are women making progress.”

Maxine Cheyney is a staff writer at Custom Media for The ACCJ Journal.