Young people hurry across a crosswalk on the way to their offices, showing growing diversity in the Japanese workplace
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It’s no secret that diversity in the Japanese workplace isn’t exactly keeping up with the global curve. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Gender Gap report had Japan ranking at 120, below several other Asian countries—and that’s just for gender diversity.

At a recent GLOBIS University seminar, Dr. Jackie F. Steele, founder of diversity consulting firm enjoi Japan, summarized the issue like this: “Japan has certain superpowers and strengths, but it has certain weaknesses and factors that limit its competitive edge.”

In a world battling an ongoing global pandemic spurring the Great Resignation and an ever-present demand for innovation, Japan needs that competitive edge more than ever. What will it take to make up for lost ground?

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Japanese woman works in a panic; two bosses stand behind her with body language for poor psychological safety in the workplace

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A History of Diversity in the Japanese Workplace

Japan’s struggle with diversity in the workplace is famously complicated due to a rapidly aging population, lingering patriarchy, and largely homogenous society. The Japanese labor force is shrinking, but the gender and social equality gap is not (at least not fast enough).

“There is a shrinking pie of talent,” says Steele, “and the competition is on.”

Japan has taken steps in the past to mix things up for diversity and inclusion. Steele refers to these as Japan’s first-, second-, and third-generation approaches to diversity strategy.

Strategy: Creating Value Inside Your Company

Have you ever wondered why certain companies are more successful than others? The answer is strategy: internal processes that control costs, allocate resources, and create value. This course from GLOBIS Unlimited can give you the tools you need for that strategic edge.

First-Generation Diversity in Japan: English Teachers (1980-1999)

Steele came to Japan in 1997 as part of “a diversification initiative through the ministry of education to bring in talent—young foreign talent—into Japanese local governments across the country.” Many of these young foreigners became English language teachers who were essentially tasked to “bring new ideas and diversify through language acquisition.”

The issue with this approach proved to be that a single person can only influence so much. Many English teachers in Japan will attest that change is possible, but a handful of English teachers will hardly institutionalize a new mindset throughout Japanese culture.

Second-Generation Diversity: Womenomics (2000-2010s)

The next attempt at more inclusive workplaces came from late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Womenomics policy. In short, he believed that improving the economic situation for women would improve the economic situation of the country. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk solution to simply hire more women didn’t come close to meeting the grander Womenomics targets.

Why? Lack of strategy.

“One woman here and one woman there is really not a strategy,” says Steele. “It does not institutionally drive shifts of power. Shifts of power follow majority-minority dynamics.”

Gender equality in leadership teams (that is, the number of female managers) and diverse corporate governance are needed for accountability in Japanese companies. Womenomics, while great in theory, ultimately failed to stand up as an inclusion strategy.

Women Empowerment: Lessons from Cartier

How can women overcome gender inequality and reach their leadership goals? Cartier Japan CEO June Miyachi shares her secret in this special course from GLOBIS Unlimited.

Third-Generation Approach: Unconscious Bias Training (2020s)

Many Japanese companies nowadays turn to training as the answer.

Steele says this approach has the right idea, but asserts that it requires follow up to meet greater goals and achieve systemic change in all corners of the ecosystem. Leadership needs to be mindful of what happens after training—measurable changes in habits, biases, and behavior.

On the bright side, training does at least put the ability to change systems into the hands of everyone, incorporating the need for accountability. “We’re trying to build an ecosystem shift that is institutionalized and structural,” says Steele.

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As the global understanding of diversity as a business strategy continues to evolve, perhaps it’s time to redefine DEI as diversity, equity, and innovation.

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Office workers in uniform suits crossing a street on their way to the office, a common sight in Japanese working culture

How to Build a Diverse Workforce for the Future

Looking ahead, Steele emphasizes that a change in mindset is an essential first step toward promoting diversity: “It is not a nice-to-have. It’s not something to do when you have extra change in your pocket. It’s not a one-off event. It is business strategy.”

She goes on to list seven components for strategic DEI, defined by enjoi Japan as diversity, equity, and innovation:

  • Leadership responsibilityCEOs and Japanese managers must be a core part of any strategic change.
  • Employer branding – Companies can’t do DEI quietly. Customers need proof that you’re showing up.
  • Engaged employees – Your employees should be excited to be working for your organization, and that requires lasting foundations for the mental health of everyone in the workplace.
  • Psychological safety – Companies with hierarchical cultures must be aware of built-in obstacles that prevent people from speaking their minds, which in turn limits how deeply DEI can actually sink into work environments.
  • Low employee turnover – To bring diversified talent up the ladder, you need what Steele calls “institutionalized memory” to ensure new processes take root, bottom to top.
  • Sustainable innovation – DEI innovation shouldn’t be about completing one project, but maintaining a continuously innovating ecosystem.
  • High team performance – Your teams should understand the weight of DEI in the overall business strategy and strive for excellence to see it through for a diverse and inclusive workplace.
  • Servant Leadership

    There's more to leadership than driving a team to profit. In fact, there's a word for looking beyond self-interest to prioritize individual growth: servant leadership. Try this course for a quick breakdown of what that is, how it works, and how it can lead to organizational success.

Diversity Strategy to Combat the Great Resignation

Amid the Great Resignation, countries like Japan face a now-or-never decision to incorporate diversity once and for all. Luckily, the issue is not lack of talent, but a misdirected mindset. The tools are there for leaders to take advantage of.

Start by identifying the pain points in your organization at all levels. What biases do you find in yourself and others? What microaggressions are happening in the workplace? How are these and other factors impacting employee turnover in the long term?

Once you’ve identified these issues, you can start building a new business strategy that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion for heightened innovation and healthy company growth.

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