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
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
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
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 significantlRead more
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.
Gender 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.
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.Read more