Japan’s carmakers are gleaming symbols of industrial strength. But there is one area in which they are not so shiny yet: employment practices that squander the potential of Japanese women. Both Toyota and Nissan have no women on their boards; Honda appointed its first only this year.
The picture is repeated across Japanese industry, where women hold only 7 per cent of managerial positions compared with almost 45 per cent in the US.
Female role models in Japanese business are few and far between. One of the few is Mitsuru Claire Chino, an executive officer at Itochu Corporation, a large general trading company. But she is such an unusual case that when she was appointed last year, the mere act of placing a woman in a senior job was enough to make headlines.
Yet Japan needs women in senior positions in business everywhere, as the country seeks to prop up its declining working-age population and boost its faltering economy. Politicians know as much. In the run-up to Sunday’s general election, all the parties have spoken of introducing measures to support young families, so that women can both have families and work full-time.
Yet there is a crucial point no one wants to address: a work culture that favours men.
Bosses (mostly men) expect their staff to work as they did when they were young — which means long hours. It is important to be present to please the boss, whether or not the hours are productive. Even at foreign-owned companies such as mine, junior consultants sometimes stick around to provide moral support while others burn the midnight oil, sacrificing personal time in the cause of “team spirit”.
The typical work culture at Japanese corporations calls for nomi-kai — after-hours sessions drinking and bonding with colleagues. It is less common than it once was for these end up at Tokyo’s kyaba-kura (cabaret clubs), where hostesses sit at the table and grease the conversation. But it still happens, and female colleagues are not welcome.
So what do women do? Well, we put up with it. We are brought up to play nice. We want to please the boss and avoid ruffling feathers. Eventually the pressure of juggling work and family life takes its toll. My best friend works at one of Japan’s largest trading conglomerates. Of a large cohort of female graduates hired 20 years ago, she tells me she is the only one who is still working there.
The few who persevere face another hurdle: male colleagues and bosses who try to “protect” them from excessive workloads. This prevents women being assigned to supposedly tougher projects or sent on business trips. This is not a conscious effort to exclude women from senior roles. I have spoken to highly educated and successful men over 40 who genuinely believe the “fair sex” needs extra care. Their misplaced chivalry deprives female colleagues of opportunities, hurting their prospects when it comes to senior managerial roles. The message to the younger generation is that working seriously and professionally does not pay off.
Can changing the work culture have an impact? There are encouraging glimpses of progress. Legal departments at Japanese corporations generally employ a higher percentage of women — sometimes up to 40 per cent — because here brainpower is all that matters, and face time is less important in a support role. Furthermore, the notion of “protecting” women is less prevalent. Is it a coincidence that Ms Chino, the executive officer at Itochu, hails from the legal department?
It is a start, but Japan needs to replicate this across all its industries. Progress will mean changing the way performance is measured and rewarded. Women themselves, with support from a new generation of men, need to be catalyst for change. Japan must not pay lip service to harnessing the potential of its women.
Nobuko Kobayashi is partner-elect at the Tokyo office of AT Kearney, a consultancy