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The glass ceiling, the gender pay gap, MeToo . . . Some issues are dressed up with new names, but the struggle for women’s equality goes back a long way. In the past few years, these and other diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues have at last taken center stage.
Now we talk about allies in the workplace and the role of CEOs. We ask new contacts for their pronouns and talk about DEI as a pillar of business strategy. The social movement for DEI is far from over, but we, as a society, finally have our foot in the door.
Now whose responsibility should it be to actually get us into the room?
In a perfect world, everyone would come together in a unified effort for DEI. But we hardly live in a perfect world, so we’re left wondering: Is it men (with their easy access to the top) who should take the lead for gender equality? Or is it women (who have the lived experiences to know what’s needed)?
Tracy Gopal, founder and CEO of Third Arrow Strategies, has made it her mission to promote diversity through corporate governance in Japan, leveraging an impressive network of even more impressive women in leadership to help her do it. We spoke to her about how women can—or should?—take on the role of moving the DEI needle.
“I wouldn’t say that women should be responsible [for diversity], but I think they have to be responsible because that’s the world we live in.”
Insights: Let’s get right to it: Should women be responsible for promoting diversity in their companies?
Gopal: I wouldn’t say that women should be responsible, but I think they have to be responsible because that’s the world we live in. Of course, nobody’s going to say, “Okay, women, it’s your job to promote diversity.” Nobody would say that. But in reality, women are probably more suited to promoting diversity. They’re selected a lot of times and put on a task force for diversity for that reason.
I do believe there are men who want to be supportive—there are a lot of great men in Japan, even—but it’s probably going to fall more on the women.
“Your role as a woman and director is to be an excellent director.”
Insights: In your work to promote diversity, particularly women, on boards of directors, how do you advise women on their role?
Gopal: My network is not just about placing women on boards. It includes board directors who are aiming towards excellence. So what does that mean? It means:
- How do you be more effective on your board?
- How do you promote change on your board?
- How do you promote change and diversity in the company?
Insights: Those are some big questions. Can women really move beyond token leadership roles and impact these kinds of changes?
Gopal: Absolutely. Many of the women in my network have moved well beyond token leadership roles. Their best practices can inspire all women directors in Japan to become more effective board directors—in all areas, but of course related to workforce diversity.
Insights: Can you tell as about some of these women?
Gopal: One is Elizabeth Masamune, an Australian woman fluent in Japanese who is a director with Arakawa Chemical, a very traditional Japanese company. She took it on as her responsibility to empower the women, created women’s groups, and gave women across divisions chances to connect, as well as work on projects to present to senior leadership.
Junko Sasaki, too, is a director on several boards, including Yaskawa Electric. She has also been a voice for diversity. Many times, boards do see challenges, whether it be finding executive directors in the company or finding women to promote in more remote offices outside Tokyo. Ms. Sasaki and many other members of my network are usually there to recognize difficulties, but also to challenge the board to find solutions.
Another example is Jenifer Rogers, who serves on the board of Nissan. In her role, she ensures that the board supports female executive directors and managers, as well as robust internal policies and practices. She also focuses on being an excellent non-executive director by contributing her diverse perspectives for meaningful debate and innovation.
Insights: How do you translate these amazing stories into actionable takeaways for your network?
Gopal: When I tell these stories, I like to emphasize a few points. Number one: You can make tremendous change and promote diversity as a director. And number two: That shouldn’t be your only job as a board director.
Insights: Meaning women should take on diversity, but not feel obligated?
Gopal: Meaning your role as a woman and director is to be an excellent director. Diversity is one of your responsibilities, but you should be asking intelligent questions on every critical issue that comes up related to business strategy. I want the women to think strategically about how to increase returns for shareholders for good corporate governance in Japan—or anywhere.
“We have to change the concept of what a woman can contribute and look at her skills.”
Insights: It could be said that, in a way, the gender gap is pushing women to excel beyond where they otherwise would. In Japan, for example, most female board directors have a master’s compared to men. What’s your perspective on that?
Gopal: While it’s good for career development, the reason for the two different career paths is not positive. Removing the option for Japanese women to work at Japanese companies seems somewhat absurd—for both the women and for the company.
Many of the Japanese women in my network that have been successful studied abroad, which is excellent because they speak English very well. But most of them made their careers in foreign companies, at universities, or as professionals like lawyers, accountants, and financial consultants.
So I think that, yes, it’s great that women got MBAs. But because there aren’t many lateral transfers into Japanese companies, to eliminate that option also creates a problem for Japanese companies.
Insights: What do you say to women who feel change will never come to a country like Japan?
Gopal: First, it is actually rare for me to hear concern that change will never come. Many talk about some positive changes and opportunities they’re already seeing.
Second, Japan is not the first country to have resistance to adding women to the board. In Norway, when they put in a 40% quota, all the companies were scrambling. Trying to replace 40% of your board with women? That that’s a big task. Adding one woman over a period of six years? That’s nothing.
Insights: Does that mean women just need to be patient?
Gopal: I think there has been too much patience by all constituencies.
Women need to be excellent performers to promote diversity and influence new definitions. In the US, we also had the barrier of what a qualified candidate looked like for a board director position. It used to be that a qualified candidate was a former CEO who had prior board experience. Obviously, there were no women that met that criteria because all the CEOs were men! What had to happen was that the criteria for a qualified board director had to change.
I think Japan is going in that direction. The women being put on boards are non-traditional. They’re not company executives who have thirty years in a company, but they have other skills—digital transformation, AI, legal expertise, etc. We just have to change the concept of what a woman can contribute and look at her skills. Then the pool greatly expands.
“Each time a woman demonstrates excellence, it helps other women down the line.”
Insights: What’s your advice for women who feel like fighting the diversity fight is a lonely road?
Gopal: First, this is no longer a battle to fight alone. The woman board directors I know are quite strong. They are both energized from the signs of change and frustrated at some backwards steps. For the women who have made it to the senior ranks of their companies, I applaud them. This was not an easy road, and they made sacrifices.
What I’d also like to tell them is that there are now resources to support them. There is an entire global community to support women, including Japanese women.
Finally, I’d remind them that the merits of diversity compound over time, including better retention of female staff and better candidates.
Insights: It sounds like there’s a lot of pressure for women to persevere in promoting diversity and set a good example.
Gopal: Yes, but it’s also an opportunity. When the other board directors see how excellent you are, there’s a greater chance they’re going to find another woman. So each time a woman demonstrates excellence, it helps other women down the line.
That’s my philosophy: If I can get the board women to just knock the socks off of the other board directors and be excellent, that can have an impact. One of my main goals of the network is to aggregate and elevate talent for Japan—to show there are candidates, and to help them be excellent.