Illustration of two women speaking virtually, one on a laptop as a business mentor, the other casually dressed from home

“The situation of diversity in Japan is crazy. What happened with Mr. Mori of the Olympic committee wasn’t really news—it’s the reality.”

Satomi Furuya pulls no punches when it comes to laying out her country’s woeful state of gender equality (or lack thereof). But while others have been shaking their heads from the sidelines for decades, she’s jumped into the diversity and inclusion (D&I) issue with both entrepreneurial feet. Her company, Clarity, was established in 2018 to provide transparent information on how companies in Japan address women’s needs. A year later, she became the first Japanese winner of the Slush Tokyo Pitch Contest. Now, two years since that victory, Clarity houses a database of over three hundred working women ready to serve as work-life mentors.

Laid out like that, it sounds like Clarity zoomed along a smooth road to success. In reality, gaining a foothold for its sorely needed services was a masterclass in trial and error. Furuya has learned a lot about how to pivot and rework a company model while staying true to her mission.

Satomi Furuya profile image
Satomi Furuya, founder and CEO of Clarity | © Clarity

Lesson #1: Qualitative Data vs. Quantitative Data

Furuya knew women lacked the information they needed to pursue their careers without giving up their home lives—identifying what information that was, exactly, was more complicated.

She began by looking to Glassdoor and its Japanese counterparts (many of which are geared toward men) as benchmarks. That meant qualitative reviews from women who worked (or had worked) for various companies. Unfortunately, the less-is-more approach turned out to be far more time and cost consuming than expected.

When Clarity’s focus switched to a quantitative approach, she took a big step closer to a solution—at least for the initial product.

“A lot of meaningful data such as a company’s gender ratio, maternity leave taken ratio, benefits, and policies particularly supporting women (and men at the end of the day), actually exists out there on the net,” says Furuya. “But people don’t have the right kind of access to it, or the data is shown in a very cluttered way. So what we do is curate and visualize that data for easy access.”

Things were looking up . . . until they realized data itself wasn’t really the core driver for women seeking their ideal workplace.

Lesson #2: What Women Want

“At the end of the day,” says Furuya, “what enables women to work and live to the fullest isn’t just official company policies and benefits. It’s how well a boss and colleagues understand childcare and women’s healthcare, as well as how diverse their mindset is and how constructive their communication approach is. It’s the atmosphere—the company culture.”

A company might promise equal opportunities for women (and even have systems in place), but just because women technically can move up doesn’t mean they actually do. Getting passed over at work for promotions or other opportunities erodes motivation to stay at a company—or sometimes to keep working at all.

In Japan, it is sadly still taken as a given that women will eventually quit their fulltime jobs and become part-timers or fulltime housewives. Mothers who try to work often fight that battle on two fronts: at work and at home. Many husbands perpetuate the vicious cycle, expecting their wives to do most of the housework and childcare because they see it as a mother’s duty. Surprisingly, this gender bias is found in women, as well. Many working mothers struggle with their image of what an “ideal mother” is, often because their perception is modeled after their own mother, who was a fulltime housewife.

In short, barriers are not only found at the workplace—they also come from the family, or even a woman’s own mind.

Though not always the key driver, a supportive company culture does give incentive for women to keep working. Lack of support isn’t necessarily rooted in indifference. As Clarity dug deeper, it found that even companies that wanted to support women on their staff had no idea how to do so. And that realization would unlock a whole new world for Clarity.

To get holistic support and guidance to move forward, women needed relatable mentors.

Lesson #3: What’s in a Mentor?

Mentors don’t come out of nowhere—you can’t just pull random women off the street and pair them up with protégés. Luckily, Furuya’s team was already data driven, so they knew they’d need two things to build a mentor service: lots of data and lots of variety. But they’d also need to cast back to their qualitative approach to ensure they weren’t just matching, but matching right.

“We started with interviewing more than fifty women from twenty companies,” recalls Furuya. “From their twenties to forties, married, single, with kids, without kids, various industries and salaries . . . And all of them said they look for working women as role models, but fail to find the right person.”

The reason turned out to be twofold.

First, the obvious: Although the total number of working women in Japan is increasing, the number of women achieving a fulltime career and a satisfying personal life is just not that big. According to Catalyst, as of 2019, 44.4% of the Japanese labor force was women—44.2% of whom were part-timers or temporary workers. The pay gap remained the second-lowest among OECD countries, at 23.5%—and that was before COVID-19 struck down women’s earnings by 9.8% (compared to 5.2% for men in the same jobs).

Second, there was a generation problem. While grateful for their sempai’s sacrifices and accomplishments, the younger demographic often finds hardworking women with time-tested experience difficult to relate to. After all, they’ve made sacrifices for their careers that many women today aren’t willing to make. Namely, prioritizing career over family.

Based on these insights, Clarity launched the full beta version of its mentoring service in May 2020—just in time for two life-changing disruptions:

Furuya’s first pregnancy and COVID-19.

Lesson #4: The Disappointment of Failed Disruption

Furuya had her hands full with a baby on the way, but she remained determined to see the Clarity mentorship program through. Further, coronavirus seemed like it might be just the disruptor Japan needed. Surely, companies would be more motivated than ever to innovate, and the gateway to innovation was D&I. Furuya couldn’t wait to see Japan finally launch itself forward.

Unfortunately, fewer Japanese companies seized the opportunity than she expected.

Natural disasters, pandemics, and recessions have a way of hyperfocusing businesses on two things: revenue and cutting costs. Both spell bad news for women, as the cost cutting starts with part-timers, administrative workers, and non-managers—where many of the workforce women are. Further, lockdowns forced mothers to sacrifice work hours for childcare.

“It’s very sad,” says Furuya, understandably frustrated. “Many potential clients were saying they know diversity is important, they know it’s the right thing to do . . . but they don’t have the budget under coronavirus. It’s totally understandable that they’re struggling to come up with new ideas and innovate. But diversity is how you do that!”

Under the last ten years or so of Abenomics, Japan did see an increase in working women. But if those women teeter on the brink of losing their jobs whenever a crisis comes along, they remain expendable. The D&I roots simply don’t run deep enough. Women need to be in higher, indispensable positions to trigger systemic change. Clarity had the data to prove that mentors were the key, but Japan’s mindset was in the way.

Then Furuya had a startling revelation: what if her own mindset was in the way?

Lesson #5: Misdirection for Success

Male-dominated companies, especially in the time of COVID-19, resisted Clarity’s female mentors because they didn’t have the budget for the “luxury” of D&I. But what if the product weren’t D&I?

Working under a new theory, Furuya took a list of Clarity’s top mentors specialized in online sales and marketing and proposed them to companies with limited talent in those areas. “We showed them the list,” recalls Furuya with a sly smile. “They were all women, but we didn’t mention that. They didn’t care about the gender, they wanted the outcome, the value.”

Not once did “work-life balance,” “women’s rights,” or “D&I” enter the conversation. By keeping those trigger words off the table, Furuya circumvented the hurdle of D&I being perceived as an extra expense and focused instead on what companies were desperate for: an edge to raise efficiency and revenue.

Then a funny thing happened.

Not only did clients start to order mentors for sales solutions, but they also asked Clarity to provide mentoring support on work-life balance for their female employees. Managers, who are in many cases around or above forty, admitted that they had no relevant experience to guide younger women in their careers and lives. It turned out they were also struggling to find ways to meaningfully support women.

They started the conversation!” says Furuya, still amazed. “I realized this is the right order to bring up D&I solutions. If I bring up diversity first, they kind of shut down. But if you approach them from a standpoint of business revenue, they are very rational.”

Lesson #6: Embracing the Right Perspective

Furuya now admits that her initial approach was too rigid. Like many people focused on D&I, her instinct was to jump in and educate.

“I wanted everyone to understand that this is the right thing, and you need to understand,” she recalls. “Now I realize I didn’t have the right perspective. If you think about it, it doesn’t matter if they don’t understand what we want them to do about D&I, as long as they understand from their perspective and eventually change their behavior. If they promote more women to work in the right positions even for the sake of their own benefit, that’s our success.”

While Japan has a long way to go, there are some Japanese companies doing it right. Furuya names ecommerce giant Mercari and web marketing company Members as prime examples.

In the end, Clarity’s journey proves that the success of D&I all comes down to mindset—of both men and women. Narrow perspectives restrict opportunities for collaboration. You can’t always change someone’s mindset, but you can probably find a way around it.

For her part, Furuya is now committed to embracing multiple perspectives and accountability—positive feedback. “Regardless of gender, Japanese people are afraid of conflict and tend to avoid discussions. They subjectively assume what others think and feel bad or stressed out about speaking up, which eventually leads to negative and emotional feedback. If both men and women realize that giving feedback can be positive, we can start constructive conversations to find the best solutions for all stakeholders.”

In other words, we can provide clarity.

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