A Conversation with the Japanese First Lady about Womenomics

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A Conversation with the Japanese First Lady about Womenomics

Posted on 12 May 2017 in News, womenomics -
With Akie Abe and Madame Tsuruoka

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.

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‘Kawaii’- is it standing in the way of female empowerment in Japan?

Posted on 8 March 2017 in womenomics -

It seems fitting on International Women’s Day to share some of the research I am currently doing in preparation for a talk at Rikkyo University’s Gender Forum this year. My research covers ‘The Gender roles in Japan’ and looks at whether those roles are so ingrained within Japanese society that they need to be tackled more from a grassroots perspective to really implement change. Company and government led initiatives are still happening within the ingrained expectations of gendered behaviour and therefore have limitations to their effectiveness. Although ‘gender diversity’ and ‘womenomics’ are key buzz words in Japan and there are pockets of advancement, Japan dropped significantly in the Global Gender Gap Report from 2015 to 2016. Furthermore, if Japan wishes to encourage their female workforce to both support Japan’s economy by participating in the workforce fully and off-set their demographic time-bomb by having more babies, fundamental shifts in the gender roles in society need to happen.

The situation is complex and challenging. For women in Japan, social etiquette dictates from a young age how to behave and how to look. An interesting element of this is the ‘kawaii’ sub- culture that has been very influential in defining how women act and behave and is perceived as a desirable trait for a woman to possess. There is no doubt that the cutesy image of Japanese women has been a strong feminine archetype and has permeated many areas of society but the over-emphasis of this as a feminine archetype may be an obstacle in the workplace, preventing women from adopting traits that are non-kawaii but that may support them in attaining female empowerment, leadership skills and being confident in their job capabilities.

Whether we like it or not, success in the wider world of business is still based on masculine traits and there are still judgements made of male and female behaviour on whether you can do a job effectively. On a Linkedin thought leadership post today, I noticed that advice for women wanting to look ‘powerful’ and ‘strong’ is to rid themselves of overly feminine behaviours when presenting and adopt more masculine ones. This may work in the West to some extent, although aggressive women are still treated differently to aggressive men, but can be detrimental for women in Japan.

This doesn’t mean that Japanese women are just smiling kawaii robots. Read this article about how Sanrio, the producers of Hello Kitty have produced an angry panda, Aggretsuko, that rebels against this expectation of being ‘kawaii’ to see how widespread this expectation of kawaii is and how stifling it is. “Japanese girls suffer from a social structure where we are supposed to act properly. But many of us have two sides. They might look cute on the outside but can be aggressive inside. Sanrio shows this kind of girl quite well with Aggretsuko”.

So can the gender roles in Japan be made more favourable to gender diversity? Various models exist around the world but can they be adopted in Japan? Yes, I believe they can through grassroots change within a Japanese context. Going back to my research, I believe that one of the areas this can happen effectively is within early Year’s Education, not least because schools play such a strong role in socialisation within Japanese society but also because studies show that ‘kawaii’ is a significant factor amongst interactions within early year’s education and will no doubt shape the perceptions of children and gendered behaviour significantl

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Gender Equality in the Workplace in Japan-Gendered norms still a barrier

Posted on 13 December 2016 in Japanese Corporate Culture, News, womenomics -

I recently got back from a week in Japan where I spent some time gathering information for both my ‘Promotion of Gender Equality Training’ for businesses and my academic research into the Gender Roles in Japanese Society. I met with employees from a Japanese company and spoke to other people I met to get both a male and female perspective on Womenomics and to discuss issues such as child-care and gender equality in the workplace.

Labour Participation & Female Leaders

Although the Survey of Living Conditions compiled by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2015 showed a record high number of working mothers in the labour market since 2004, they are still predominately working in part-time and temporary roles. Indeed, many of the working mothers I spoke to in Tokyo supported this by agreeing that they chose to do either part-time or contract work so they could fulfil the duties of bringing up children. Furthermore, full-time working mothers were not going for promotions to managerial levels because of the immense time commitments this would entail since they were already up at 5am sorting out the house-work and children having to do more in the evening, making the long hours and responsibility of reaching managerial level at work unrealistic and unattractive. One of the men I spoke to told me how his wife was wanting to go back into the workforce but was lacking the confidence to do this. Even with his support it seems that the corporate culture and hurdles of finding child-care and fulfilling the expectations of the educational role they are still expected to play (PTA attendance being one of the major bugbears) is still not supportive of mothers returning to work with confidence and ease nor is it giving them any incentives to want to climb the corporate ladder. No surprise that a poll conducted by the Intelligence HITO Research Institute in April 2015 showed that Japanese women have little interest in becoming managers or leaders.

yokogawa-2Gender Gap Widening

Even with all the awareness raising and structural support from the Government within their Womenomics initiatives, Japan dropped even further on the Global Gender Gap Index from 101st in 2015 to 111th in 2016 . The traditional expectations of gendered behaviour in Japanese society are very ingrained and still value men as the breadwinner and women as the house-wife/child-carer with expectations of certain gendered behavioural patterns. These attitudes are used as a socialiser to influence how women feel about themselves, behave, view opportunities and their ability to change things and can be quite harsh for those women who choose to go outside of these norms.

Grass-roots Shift

Pockets of change are happening but for more sustainability and a real change in mindset, there must be a grassroots shift in the expectations of gendered behaviour, which can only really happen from early years education (more about this in my upcoming academic paper). Until then, what the Government is ideally wanting- a rise in GDP from women entering the workplace alongside a rise in the birth rate to offset the demographic time bomb and create a workforce for the future- is going to be at odds with what women can realistically achieve within society.

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Japan, Gender, Heels and Female Empowerment

Posted on 16 August 2016 in Cultural Awareness, womenomics -

Recent courses in Japan teaching women to wear high heels as a form of empowerment in the workplace have been very popular and throw up interesting contrasts with popular feminist opinion in the UK, where the Government recently launched an inquiry after a petition calling for a ban on the practice of forcing women to wear high heels in certain workplace environments got over 100,000 signatures almost overnight.

Issues of female empowerment are indeed complex and nowhere more so than in Japan where gender roles are very ingrained. With one of the largest gender gaps in the developed world, Japan has a real social, demographic and economic need for women to embrace empowerment and move towards equality in the workplace.

This particular form of ‘female empowerment’ appeals to Japanese cultural norms. One of the creators of the courses implies that since Japanese women are too shy to express themselves in a culture where women are still not expected to stand out or put themselves first, they can get extra confidence from this. According to The Japanese High Heel Association (JHA), “stilettos both improve a woman’s posture and give her greater assurance of her place in society.”

However, in a country where female receptionists until very recently were still referred to as ‘office flowers’, in certain companies women are sent home from work if they are not wearing enough make-up and are given specific advice in corporate inductions on how to have their hair, encouraging heel wearing as a specific form of career empowerment may well perpetuate the fixed gender roles and a feminine archetype that has evolved within this patriarchal society where young women are primarily judged on looks and specified feminine behaviour above ability. A recent example of a travel agency who tried to get business men to fly with them by advertising an offer of travelling in the company of ‘beautiful’ female university graduates was taken down under protests but the fact that it was even thought up in the first place shows an underlying attitude that may need to be adapted before any sustainable progress in the womenomics agenda can be made.

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Breakfast Meeting with Haruno Yoshida-All about Womenomics

Posted on 20 May 2015 in Cultural Awareness, News, womenomics -

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.

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