This week, I was lucky enough to have been part of a small group of Japanese and British women who attended a breakfast talk with BT Japan’s first female CEO Haruno Yoshida to find out about her life and how she recently made headlines by becoming the 1st ever female executive of the Japanese business association-the Keidanren.
Yoshida san was obviously not destined to follow the traditional wishes of her family by entering a suitable company where she was expected to find a good husband and then leave to bring up a family. Her life took a different turn-she left Japan and worked her way up the ranks in the Telecommunications industry of the 80’s in North America, often having to compete in a man’s world with weekend golfing and business trips away from her daughter whilst having to prove she was 2 or 3 times better than her male counterparts. This obviously caused her grief as a single mother. However, significant life events plus her passion for her job have all led her to this current moment, where she is able to wield significant influence within a tide of change that is sweeping Japan-womenomics-or more precisely, getting women to enter the workforce and contribute towards Japan’s economy.
In which direction it will flow, we do not know yet. All we can be certain of is that the time for change is now. Japan has reacted slowly to this up to now and has been left with a declining birth rate and low figures of female labour participation and women in leadership positions compared to other developed countries. Womenomics is now a key policy of Abe’s government mainly because of economic necessity and it has opened discussion and will hopefully pre-empt the necessary cultural changes for the empowerment of women.
Restrictions to Japanese women’s progression in the workplace lie very heavily within their cultural and societal expectations of women. Corporate culture has become so ingrained with prohibitive recruitment practices, male-orientated career advancement opportunities and inflexible work expectations that in order to get ahead, some women still have to work within very masculine environments and simply don’t want to do that. In some cases, they don’t get recognised or promoted for their talents and predictably, give up on rising through the ranks, especially if they have a family too with a lack of support for childcare. After having children, many do not re-enter the workforce and a high percentage of those who do mostly do so on a part-time, temporary basis. It is almost unthinkable that a single Japanese mother could work her way up within a major Japanese corporation and become CEO. I meet many young, ambitious Japanese women outside of Japan forging successful careers-it is indeed a poignant part of Yoshida’s story that her rise to success was mostly done outside of Japan.
Her main motivation now is to ensure that opportunities for enjoying a fulfilling job alongside bringing up a family should be available for her daughter. Let’s hope that her voice and those of other Japanese women can ensure that womenomics is not just all about economics but actually gives women an environment where they can be a valued part of the workforce and be inspired to participate within it.