I have been featured as a Thought Leader in the Winter 2017 Edition of Women in Leadership Publication with my article on ‘Gender Parity-Re-invention of Business Culture and Norms.’ To download a copy, click here
On the 6th November 2017, I chaired a panel of Japanese companies and recruitment agencies at this conference at SOAS, organised by Dr Harald Conrad Harald Conrad, a lecturer on Japan’s economy and management at Sheffield University. The two day conference was aimed at sharing the realities of working for Japanese companies for foreign graduates so that the teaching of Japanese at university level can reflect these needs. Academics and students from all over Europe attendedRead more
She’s blond, she dresses well, is a not so outspoken ‘feminist’ and manages to ‘have it all’, balancing her roles as successful entrepreneur, mother of three, and style icon. No wonder Ivanka Trump has become a media darling in Japan.
So why the empty seats when she went to Japan to talk about ‘female empowerment’? Maybe because ‘empowerment’ is a culturally contextualised concept and what Ivanka Trump represents is idealised within Japan but far from reality. Her ‘reality’ is something most Japanese women won’t ever achieve-not because they aren’t as beautiful or successful as Ivanka, but because societal norms surrounding gendered behaviour are so culturally different. I imagine most people who attended this conference wanted something a bit more meaningful, especially given the lack of progress for gender equality within Japan. According to the latest figures from the recently published Global Gender Gap Reports, Japan dropped even further down the rankings in 2017 to 114 out of 144 countries, with the highest gaps being, yet again, in the number of females in management positions or within parliament.
Gendered norms in Japan
The gendered norms in Japan are ingrained within society and are one of the barriers to realising the targets set by Abe’s ‘Womenomics’ policies back in 2012, not least because the way women are expected to act are still at odds with the traits needed to get up into the higher ranks of business. Japan is awash with portrayals of strong women but somewhere along the line, they get pressured into reflecting the archetypal feminine traits that Japanese society feels comfortable with or they are criticised as being too aggressive or unfeminine. When the trailer of the recent Wonder Woman film first came out in Japan, it was automatically given the cute ‘kawaii’ voice-over treatment to make it more palatable. Encouragingly, Japanese women called this out on social media, most probably recognising that constantly being expected to act in a ‘cute’ and ‘non-confrontational’ way is not always appropriate and will certainly not support any female empowerment initiatives.
Japan is facing a demographic time-bomb. If Japan is committed to solving this demographic time-bomb through creating a business environment that supports increased female labour alongside higher fertility rates, it will entail grass-roots societal as well as meaningful governmental intervention. Japan may soon be able to defend itself again but if they don’t start tackling this issue on a deeper level at every opportunity they get, they may not have a population to defend.Read more
Theresa May’s visit to Japan & Brexit Negotiations: Will arrogance hinder UK Japan Business?
Theresa May’s recent visit to Japan may have been a good PR stunt but where do we stand now with Japan? The highly entertaining tea-ceremony and comments such as: “I like your dress”, “we have a good relationship” and the all-important “we will commit to a trade deal after Brexit”, were certainly reassuring but should be contextualised within the niceties often seen within Japanese negotiations. These were not false platitudes given by Abe to May, they are important parts of doing business in Japan-tatemae and relationship building- and should be read as such (reading between the lines is another important aspect of doing business with the Japanese). To assume otherwise would be arrogant, which in our current position, is not ideal. The fact is that many Japanese companies are considering something that is against all their business principles-ditching long-term business commitments to the UK- and there will be more to follow. The risk is simply too high (risk is the bottom line for all their business decisions.)
Nurturing Relationships with the Japanese
We certainly would be wise to nurture our relationship with the Japanese-they are one of our most important trading partners bringing with them high levels of job creation and long-term investment into training, education and cultural endeavours, many of which go unnoticed or unappreciated in the Western world of ‘business is business’. The simple fact is, we do business and form relationships very differently. Anyone attending the Hitachi Rail opening ceremony last year should have noticed the difference between the Japanese side’s sentiments and the British side just from listening to the speeches alone. Furthermore, the way David Cameron and George Osborne mentioned investments made into the UK from Japan at the ceremony (Nissan committed to massive investment into their Sunderland operations on that same day) with George then hotfooting it to China to tout for bidders for HS2 the very next day showed a clear contrast of our government’s mentality with the Japanese, who favour long-term relationships, loyalty and trust.
Arrogance may be our downfall
The detail-sparse and rather delusional “we are still incredibly important” flavour of Brexit negotiations mingled with a somewhat admirable British philosophy of “flying by the seat of our pants” does not in any way appeal to the Japanese. Brexit goes against the Japanese preference for long-term stability, an absolute need for details and a low-risk environment. There will also be an expectation of us meeting the obligations they would automatically expect from their investments here, which are currently neither forthcoming nor in any way deliverable. Instead, the lack of clarity and policies based on rhetoric and arrogance currently coming from the British Government are making us look even more ‘risky’.
The UK is now a country divided by out-of-touch and in some cases quite dangerous politicians who, through a misinformed manipulation of people based in the regions who were voting against a neglect that has never been addressed rather than membership of the EU, have no real Brexit mandate from the British public-just more disillusioned people living outside of London and a negotiating charade with angry Europeans.
The fact that Downing Street were “surprised” by the demands outlined in a letter from the Japanese to the British Government regarding Brexit expectations and that Theresa May was subsequently “vexed” by the decision of the Japanese banks to leave the UK really does show a worrying level of arrogance. If we are not careful, this arrogance will stand in the way of another admirable British philosophy: our ability to “make the most out of a bad situation”. The environment we are offering now to the Japanese is not the right one. Recent comments in the press that the Japanese are being too polite to tell us don’t go far enough. They are telling us-it’s just that we’re too arrogant to listen!
For Japanese companies/executives in the UK: “Understanding why Brexit happened2
Find out more about British society and how Brexit came about by exploring Britain’s political landscape, finding out what the British people in the regions really think, why they actually voted for Brexit and understanding the different ideologies currently affecting British politics and society. We offer 1:1 Skype courses or in-house lectures on this subject aimed specifically at foreign executives in the UK or companies looking to invest here. Please contact us for further information.Read more
I had the great privilege of having lunch with the Japanese first lady Akie Abe on her recent visit to the UK. Given her unassigned but very important role as a figurehead for women in Japan and her involvement in raising the awareness of the issues surrounding female empowerment, I couldn’t help steering the conversation to ask her about the progress of ‘womenomics’ in Japan, especially since I run corporate female empowerment training and am carrying out academic research into how Japan can adapt their gendered cultural behaviours through education.
She spoke about how the Japanese government is prioritising the promotion of women in the workforce and albeit slow, there are some signs of progress. She agreed that the traditional corporate culture within Japan does not allow women (and men) to leave work at reasonable hours, so family life can suffer. Levels of stress are increasing amongst families trying to balance the economic need for women to go back to work alongside running a family. Domestic violence and child abuse are on also on the rise as a manifestation of this stress-she recently visited a domestic violence centre in Kobe. She also feels that Japanese women lack confidence and don’t develop themselves outside of work enough. As well as tackling the work/life imbalance typical of Japanese corporate life, this may well be another key to female empowerment. By cultivating an identity outside of work and families, women can feel more confident in their abilities. I personally couldn’t agree more being a mother, entrepreneur, lecturer, semi-professional bassoonist & pianist and amateur kick-boxer!
I also asked her which Western women she admires and she mentioned Cherie Blair and Laura Bush-both incredibly supportive first ladies, independent in their own rights and strong advocates for causes they cared about- a possible reflection of Akie Abe’s own independent and supportive role. I hope to meet her again when I go out to Japan to deliver my academic paper.
Background to my Research
The gender roles in Japan are culturally ingrained and expectations placed on behaviour carry considerable influence in everyday life. I am looking at how gendered behaviour is so strongly influenced by Japanese culture and society (family, education, media) and how this may be a barrier to the policies of Womenomics, which are unable to penetrate the unwritten and yet strongly influential expectations of how men and women should behave. These expectations work against the Government’s agenda to both encourage a productive female labour force participation and raise the birth rate whilst changing the corporate culture and lowering the gender gap -something that needs to precede both these goals. For the future survival of Japan, a re-evaluation of how cultural norms and traditional values influence gendered behaviour is needed but can only effectively take root if happening from the bottom up through education. I will look at how gender socialisation happens within the family, media and most importantly education and will open the debate on how the traditional and cultural values and norms of Japan regarding gender can be preserved within the educational system whilst re-defining the gendered behaviours that presently are a barrier to gender equality within Japan.Read more