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Global Japan
MAR 19, 2021

How to Solve Japan’s Gender Inequality Problem

By Casey Wahl
iStock/lerbank

Although I was born in the USA, I spent much of my childhood growing up in the Middle East, specifically in the desert of Saudi Arabia. Surprisingly, when I first came to Japan as a college student twenty years ago, my first impression was, “This place is just like Saudi Arabia!”

There are no deserts in Japan of course, and there are many more bright lights, colorful adverts, and weird and wonderful gadgets, along with all the trappings you would expect of a modern, developed society. And yet, the way women were treated here did not seem so different to how they were treated in Saudi Arabia. They were seemingly only allowed to speak after men, if at all, did all the support work, and—shockingly to me—they always seemed to walk behind men when out in work groups.

Over the past twenty years, women’s status in Japanese society has progressed on many fronts. In general, their voices are heard more, and they are thankfully no longer expected to walk behind men. There is also a somewhat greater degree of shared responsibility between genders, such as dropping off and picking up kids at daycare.

And yet, just the other day, a Japan Times correspondent drew the same comparison as I did all those years ago, posting this on Twitter:

Screenshot of a Tweet from a Japan Times journalist likening Japan's gender equality to Saudi Arabia's
Tweet from Japan Times journalist likening Japan’s gender equality to Saudi Arabia’s

Finding Incentives for Gender Equality

Despite the progress that has been made, it’s clear that a lot more work still needs to be done if Japan is to achieve genuine gender equality. There is an undeniable moral imperative that women should be treated with the same respect, given the same opportunities, and allowed the same lowered barriers as men. But it is the economic and business arguments for gender equality that may help us past the tipping point.

New Talent

Japan has major talent shortages in key growth industries, particularly tech, while it also has a dearth of capable international managers. Being competitive in these areas is essential for Japan if it is to hold onto its place as an economically powerful country. This is especially true given the declining population and shrinking domestic economy, both of which increasingly force Japanese companies to look outward to international markets.

Importing talent from overseas is, of course, one solution, but Japan has a poor track record integrating foreigners in a meaningful way. The most effective course of action, therefore, may be staring the country’s patriarchal leadership in the face: empower more Japanese women to have more meaningful and contributive careers.

Given the right educational infrastructure and the support to help balance family responsibilities with work—as well as half a chance—Japanese women could meet the talent needs of Japan’s growing tech industry. And since Japanese women often possess higher foreign language abilities than Japanese men, not to mention a more inclusive mindset (very true in my experience), they are arguably better equipped to work with international teams.

Higher Salaries

Having more Japanese women fully employed in more meaningful roles will also lead to better salaries. That, in turn, will increase the domestic consumer base: more money will be made, so more money will be spent. It’s a virtuous circle that the Japanese patriarchy, through inertia and cultural scaffolding, continues to impede.

There are almost certainly accomplished mathematicians within Japanese government ministries that will have studied the data and arrived at the same conclusions, but, as yet, no significant action has been forthcoming. However, if organizations were incentivized to hire more women and turn this theory into reality, then we should be able get the virtuous circle moving.

Fresh Innovation

It’s been proven that greater diversity leads to increased innovation. Every big Japanese company is now desperately trying to become more innovative so that they can drive growth and be competitive internationally. And yet, if the country’s business leaders can’t develop a truly inclusive and empathetic mindset towards women and begin to properly involve them in decision-making, it’s clear they will struggle to achieve the level of innovation necessary to expand internationally.

However, if they can realize the value of Japanese women’s diverse experience and lived realities—and actually listen to what they have to say—they will unearth a rich seam of material and spark conversations that lead to real innovation, not just kaizen.

Attuning to Psychological Safety

The key to all of this is psychological safety. This means that each member of an organization should feel comfortable being open and honest in their communication. They should not be worried that their career or reputation will be hindered or attacked if they say something that may be hard for others to hear.

For teams to be diverse, psychological safety is crucial, both in terms of cohesiveness and in ensuring the wellbeing of all members. This also contributes to whether a team can be considered truly inclusive, rather than just paying lip service. All of this leads to better performance.

Firms must start pursuing this goal and measuring progress regularly. Through this process, women will be able to participate more freely in discussions and decision-making. Consequently, more innovative paths can be discovered, a more inclusive environment will be created, and Japanese firms will become more sustainably competitive.

Creating psychological safety within an organization is not easy. It is a multi-year process, and it requires intentionality. You have to change people’s behavior, which is one of the hardest things to do within companies, especially for demographics that have had it their own way for a long time.

This is one of the reasons we created Attuned.

Through psychological research delivered by AI-powered software, we are enhancing the ability of managers at many large Japanese enterprises to understand people different from themselves. The platform shows intrinsic motivations that were previously unseeable, and thus nearly unknowable. By objectively understanding someone else’s motivation, you can begin to communicate with them in the way that they are best communicated with, rather than the way that feels most natural to you.

Understanding is the building block of compassion, and mutual understanding leads to more inclusivity, and thus greater psychological safety.

Imagine what could happen if every organization in Japan started to measure its level of psychological safety and worked continuously towards improving it. If companies treated their psychological safety score the same way they do the rest of their KPIs, we would have more equitable workplaces in a meaningfully short period of time. We might also have a more innovative society, a more internationally competitive business environment, and a level of gender equality that would make comparisons with places like Saudi Arabia seem absurd.