“The glass ceiling still exists in Japan, especially when it comes to women reaching management positions”

Breaking out of the old system

A conversation with three female managers at IGS

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photo by Kageaki Smith

Intelligence Global Search (IGS), a division of one of the largest recruiting companies in Japan, Intelligence, Ltd., has fostered a culture of diversity since it began. Aiko Tokuhisa, senior manager of talent management; Eiko Kishida, accounting and finance manager; and Sayoko Higo, corporate services manager, sat down with Eurobiz Japan to discuss changes they are observing at Japanese companies, women in the work place, and some of the ways IGS is supporting its own female employees.


What are some difficulties working women are facing in Japan?

Aiko Tokuhisa: For all of the innovation and advancement in Japan, there are still many aspects of the culture that remain quite traditional. The workplace is no different and in many offices, women are still expected to fill the stereotypical roles of serving tea and answering phones. This can be somewhat demotivating for women with high career aspirations.

Sayoko Higo: I gave birth to twins last summer and just recently returned from maternity leave. This experience has allowed me to see some of the difficulties women in the same situation are facing. The on-going issue of a lack of certified day-care facilities is the largest challenge new mothers have to overcome in order to return to work. The government has recently succeeded in increasing the number of day-care spaces available. However, the number of new applicants for day-care still outpaces the increase in spots available; an unbelievable statistic when considering the decreasing population.

Eiko Kishida: The glass ceiling still exists in Japan, especially when it comes to women reaching management positions. Less than 10% of management roles are filled by women in the private sector in Japan, and while the government initially set themselves a 30% target in the early 2000s, they have unfortunately just recently revised the target down to — what they say is a more realistic — 15%. One way to break through this barrier is to implement transparent performance evaluations, placing an emphasis on processes and results, rather than rewarding someone for working long hours.

Why do you believe it’s important to have more women and non-Japanese people in management roles at companies in Japan?

EK: It is critical for any organisation to have overall diversity — of age, gender, nationality, etc. — within management roles. That diversity will lead to different ideas, innovation, growth, and success. Unfortunately, I think there are still quite a few Japanese companies where Japanese males are the only ones that occupy the boardroom.

AT: The decreasing population is a topic that is often spoken about but I don’t think there is enough emphasis on the fact that the workforce population is also decreasing. If the current situation is allowed to continue unabated, Japan simply will not be able to supply the required labour in the coming years. Companies will be forced to promote under-qualified people simply because there aren’t enough people available. It makes perfect sense to open up to qualified professionals, regardless of their race or gender.

SH: I think we can all agree that some sort of change is needed in order to sustain Japan’s top standing in the world. However, I believe that the current generation of senior management will not accept any divergence from the current norm that would allow such a change to begin. The hope, at least from my standpoint, is that once this generation retires from the workforce, the old style and traditions will come to an end.

What are some of the trends you have observed with regard to how your clients’ needs have been changing?

EK: One of the biggest changes I’ve witnessed recently is the realignment of our clients’ priorities, emphasising their desire to hire more self-motivated professionals with highly developed communication and leadership skills — even when trying to fill roles that traditionally relied heavily on education and experience, such as accounting and engineering positions.

AT: Working long hours is a fairly common expectation in Japanese companies. And management at those companies often stress the need to hire younger people, as they can stereotypically work longer hours. However, as companies are expanding into new areas, they are looking for qualified professionals with experience in those areas. They are recognising the importance of that experience and are trying to harness it as a resource.

How is the job market expected to change in the coming years?

AT: From my perspective, I think we’ll see the job market continue to be extremely active for the next few years, culminating with the Olympics in 2020. However, there is some apprehension about what will happen to the job market and the economy once the Games are over. It will be a very interesting time in Japan.

EK: We regularly hear that construction companies are desperately short of engineers in the lead up to 2020. And based on simple supply and demand, this area will continue its expansion over the next four years.

SH: For my area of specialisation, corporate services and office support, the biggest change comes in the form of companies offering different types of employment contracts. There is a real need for companies to remain flexible with their recruitment plans. Therefore, they tend to prefer fixed-term contract or dispatch employees, especially with regard to office support positions.

What internal systems do you have in place at IGS to encourage more women and non-Japanese people to stay for the long term?

SH: As I mentioned earlier, I just returned from maternity leave and to be honest, I was a little concerned about what it would mean for me to return to the same management role. However, everyone has been very understanding. There are many people with families in the company and the flexibility they have shown has been very reassuring.

EK: A refreshing aspect of working here is the company’s transparent and fair performance evaluations — which do not take gender, nationality, or age into account. Everyone on our managerial team has been evaluated and promoted based on their performance and results, and not at all related to the politics of the work place.

AT: As for Intelligence, Ltd., we have always had a significant proportion of women on the management team. It is not about creating and enforcing a policy to achieve a certain percentage of women in management, it is just the culture that we have created from the beginning. And to maintain our employment retention rates, we offer numerous systems to allow time away from the office for education, family care, and for community service. People are very happy to take advantage of such opportunities, but are also very happy to return to the office afterwards.

“It makes perfect sense to open up to qualified professionals, regardless of their race or gender”