“I think it’s an advantage to be a female leader in 2017”

Lighting the way

Female executives in Japan shine for future female leaders

Text by Gavin Blair

The gender equality statistics for Japan are not encouraging. The country ranked 111th globally in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Report. While Japan’s female workforce participation rate is now above the OECD average, female executives remain rare and female CEOs at major Japanese corporations even rarer. Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated calls for women to “shine”, he appointed just two female cabinet ministers in his August reshuffle.

The journeys of women who have attained managerial positions in Japan are as varied as the individuals themselves, but they agree there is still a long way to go before the nation reaches true equality.

In the mid-1980s, when Miyuki Takahashi was job-hunting before graduating from Waseda University, she sought advice from female alumnae. Hearing that “women get opportunities at Nissan”, she decided to take a position with the automaker.

However, the concept of “opportunities” was relative.

“It was a totally different company when I joined,” recalls Takahashi. “The women had to serve tea, collect the trash.”

She watched her husband, who started work at Nissan the same year, move to different departments, gaining vital experience. Meanwhile, “I was stuck in one section doing the same thing,” Takahashi continues. “I requested a transfer and my manager was quite surprised. But I was eventually transferred to a project to establish the European headquarters.”

When the project finished, the entire team moved to the new headquarters in the Netherlands — except Takahashi. A manager she describes as a “mentor” lobbied the personnel department to let her go to Europe, as well.

“I couldn’t change the judgements of male managers, so I worked even harder,” says Takahashi.

As general manager in the External and Government Affairs Department, she now deals with subsidies and support for business globally, including on issues such as the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement and Brexit.

“Nissan’s current percentage of female managers is 10.1%,” Takahashi says. “That sounds very low, but the average in the Japanese transportation machinery manufacturing industry is around 1.3%.”

While Nissan is well ahead of its peers, it has no female board member and only two women in senior executive positions.

If female executives at Japanese companies are rare, then non-Japanese female executives are like hens’ teeth. Debra Hazelton is a general manager at Mizuho Financial Group, responsible for global recruitment, talent development, diversity and inclusion, as well as running a globalisation and connectivity team.

“The benefits of a diverse workforce are self-evident on every level,” she states. “All decisions are better with informed, diverse input.”

Beginning her career at Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), she worked for the company in her native Australia and Tokyo before becoming head of its Japan operations in the 1990s. Back again in Sydney with CBA, she was asked to head Mizuho’s Australia business in 2007. In 2014, Mizuho brought her into her current role at its Tokyo headquarters to “help globalise the workforce.”

Hazelton says she hasn’t ever felt she needed to be better than male employees, “but you have to be resilient, perhaps more flexible, develop and exhibit a good balance between humility and capability … and be able to roll with the — sometimes unintended — biases and exclusion.”

While she sees the cons still outweighing the pros, Hazelton believes there are times when being a woman gives her an edge.

“I think it can definitely be an advantage to be a woman in a way,” she states. “This is going to sound sexist, but I think women generally tend to be more flexible and more resilient in terms of being less ego-dependent.”

Although she believes the Japanese government has recognised that equality is “about Japan’s competitiveness” — and applauds the measures being taken — she doesn’t think the answer lies there.

“I don’t know if the government can force the change alone; it will be the big companies like us that will make the difference,” Hazelton says. “There has to be a brave stance or, dare I say, strategic affirmative action; this is very uncomfortable for Japanese people. They may see it as unfair to give an advantage to one group. My argument is that women have been disadvantaged for so long, this is catch-up.”

Helene von Reis is from Sweden, a country known for its gender equality, and works for IKEA, a company known for its progressive corporate culture. Yet, she says she has encountered sexism in her career.

“I have come in as the manager and the men in the room look at each other and think you’re the secretary,” says von Reis, CEO and president of IKEA Japan, who notes this usually occurred at meetings held off site.

Starting as a part-timer at IKEA while at university, von Reis’ career has seen her head the firm’s catalogue and web division, manage a store in China, and be deputy manager of its US retail business before coming to Japan in August 2016.

“I think it’s an advantage to be a female leader in 2017,” says von Reis. “Emotional intelligence is something we often speak of as a female trait. I believe that there are many men who have emotional intelligence … but mine has absolutely helped me in, say, navigating situations and in recruitment.”

Nevertheless, von Reis has to make concessions to male norms.

“Women have a different communication style than men and sometimes as a woman you really have to think about how you come across,” she observes. “You have to adjust your speaking style to more of a male speaking style to be taken seriously at the table.”

As for equality in Japan, von Reis believes the governors of Tokyo and Yokohama both being women is a very important sign, but much more still needs to be done. She points out that even at IKEA, which this year achieved a 50-50 gender split among managers, not a single Japanese male employee has yet taken full paternity leave.

“The benefits of a diverse workforce are self-evident on every level”