A woman stands in a spotlight among a crowd of businessmen, showing the gender equality odds of Japanese women in business
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If you’re a woman with a career, you’re probably well aware that the global business landscape isn’t exactly a utopia of gender equality. There are, of course, certain countries setting an example for women’s equality: the Netherlands, Sweden, and Canada among them.

Japan hasn’t quite made the list (yet).

As Japan struggles to break free of traditional gender roles, embrace corporate governance, and simply understand DEI, ambitious Japanese women in business often feel pulled in two directions. On the one hand, a famous Japanese proverb warns that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” But on the other hand . . . it’s 2022. Even here, it’s no longer a mind-blowing revelation that women have lives and careers of their own.

We asked several Japanese faculty women at GLOBIS University to share their insights on the current state of gender equality in Japanese companies, what young women can do to build a successful career here, and how men can transform themselves into allies.

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Gender Diversity in Japan: The Culture Problem

Many company leaders in Japan find themselves (or claim they find themselves) in a chicken-and-egg situation: They want to promote more women, but can’t find qualified candidates. Such excuses perpetuate the problem of not having enough diversity in management, which leads to minorities being underrepresented and diversity efforts going nowhere.

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But the heart of this issue isn’t a talent shortage—it’s a company culture problem.

“It’s hard for women to demonstrate their ability.”

Organizational systems and cultures in many Japanese companies are not cultivated enough for women, especially working mothers in higher positions. It’s hard for women to demonstrate their ability. Although Japanese organizations realize the importance of diversity and most seriously consider updating their rules, it does not work well.

One of the reasons is that decisions are made by hard-working male executives who do not fully understand working in a diverse environment. They tend to focus on rules such as special leave for women or KPIs like percentage of women in management. They don’t actually discuss changing working styles and culture.

Satoko Ogawa

“Positive discrimination has its own drawbacks.”

In Japan, promoting women’s activities has become a social movement, and this has given many women new possibilities.

On the other hand, positive discrimination has its own downsides.

One is that discussions are based on the premise that “women are seeking more opportunities to be active” without paying attention to individual preferences. If you have a strong sense of empathy and cooperation, you may feel pressured to respond to society’s expectations, even if it’s not part of your own career or life plan.

Yukari Ishii

6 Ways Japanese Women in Business Can Advance Their Careers

Gender equality in Japan is slowly improving, but in the midst of change, many women struggle to find their footing. How outspoken should you be about change? If you can see your company is making an effort, is it unfair to complain about the pace?

Here are five actions women can take to advance their careers amidst the chaos.

Share your burdens.

Although there is more and more equality for men and women in Japan, when compared to other countries, it is still not completely equal. Nevertheless, gender harassment is being tackled aggressively, especially in large companies. So talk to someone if you have problems. You’ll need someone to talk to about this—don’t try to take it on all by yourself.

There is no need to be afraid of being treated unfavorably because you are a woman. It’s legally unacceptable.

It’s also worth noting that that there are many advantages to being a woman in the workplace. It may be easier for customers to remember you, and even accept you. This is surely a sign that the work environment will become even more comfortable for women in the future.

Keiko Ohashi

Get an MBA.

People with MBAs can take comprehensive management views into consideration during proposals to better their working environment—and logically communicate those views to others. Companies will listen to those voices.

Given the circumstances, I advise all female MBA students to enjoy creating better working environments on their own. Build your own career. You play a significant role in making the current situation better. Your MBA helps you understand management principles, gain a human network, and build strong business skills and experiences. All of those will help you achieve your business goals and get a high management position.

In other words, you can prove women’s abilities in business, leading to better working environments for all.

That said, not every company is willing to change. If performance isn’t evaluated fairly, or reasonable proposals are rejected, look for a better organization. There are many other companies hungry for your abilities and constructive proposals. Find the best place for you to work, and enjoy working!

Satoko Ogawa

Avoid perfectionism.

Many women in Japan struggle with a sense of commitment in every aspect: work, housework, and parenting. They try to handle everything by themselves. They want to meet clients’ requests perfectly and prepare elaborate dishes for the family.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

If you try to do everything perfectly by yourself, you cannot reach a new, wider mission. Your capacity could be a bottleneck for a future leap forward. So here are three things you can do to avoid that trap:

  1. Identify what your core mission is, what you should do by yourself.
  2. Once you identify your mission, ask for help doing other things.
  3. Don’t try to do everything perfectly. “Good enough” is often good enough. It does not mean “shoddy work.”

Sonoko Igarashi

Work hard.

Most successful women are not bound by the old Japanese norms. They’re willing to take on challenges, and they don’t waste time making excuses about the Japanese patriarchy.

If you are competent, and if you are an asset to your company, no one will talk about your gender. As long as you contribute to the company and work hard with a positive attitude, the people around you will support you regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.

Keiko Ohashi

Believe in yourself.

There are two big commonalities among successful women in Japan:

  1. They have a high self-esteem. They believe in themselves. They are capable, they are unique, they are needed, and they are filled with possibilities. These feelings are usually fostered during childhood, but can be also developed as an adult by a good coach or mentor.
  2. They have personal missions. They want to make the world better, and they know they can be a part of that. They don’t leave a problem alone, but try to fix it for a better world.

Sonoko Igarashi

Map out the life you want—and go for it.

When society undergoes major changes, there are positives and pains. We, as individuals, should not allow ourselves to be swept away by the changes. Instead, we should try to take advantage of those that benefit our goals and create an environment where we can move freely and work with the people around us.

So what exactly does that look like? There are two steps you need to take to answer that question.

First, reflect on what kind of life you want. Only you can determine that. Second, share your life goal with the people around you and ask for their help to achieve it. Those people can include your boss, colleagues, family, and friends—anyone, really. The point is that no one can achieve their dreams alone. You need the help of the people around you. You may sometimes feel lonely, like there’s no one around you to really share with. But for those who have the will, the right person will appear one day. You’ll find them if you keep looking.

We’re seeing a growing number of women who live proactively. As that continues, society will come to recognize diversity in the true sense of the word and make the most of each individual’s differences. Eventually, we will not lump all women together and encourage them to work in the same direction.

Yukari Ishii

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2 Ways Men Can Be Better Allies in the Workplace

Women in Japan (and everywhere) are fighting the good fight for equality. But at the end of the day, we can’t do it alone. Luckily, more and more men are coming to see the benefits of diversity and feminism. Becoming an effective ally, however, often requires a change of perspective.

Here are two ways men can teach themselves to better support their female coworkers—in Japan or anywhere.

Make yourself a minority.

Make an effort to be a minority wherever you can in your life. You could go to PTA meetings that usually only mothers attend. Or you could study abroad somewhere you can meet many non-Japanese people.

Through these kinds of experiences, you will see how many systems are designed for the majority, how difficult it is for the minority to raise their hands or let out their voice when they feel a sense of discomfort. This is your start. Feel what your female coworkers feel. Only that will lead to solutions.

Sonoko Igarashi

Stop.

If you ever find yourself thinking, “Because she’s a woman . . . ” stop. Instead of making assumptions, confirm the intentions of others directly. A lot of men assume that women do or think certain things just “because they’re women,” but this is not always the case.

Respect the opinions of a person because they are a person, not because of their gender.

Keiko Ohashi

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