the Way

Being a woman in business in Japan

Matsuoka works with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan on its gender diversity efforts

When I was a student, I was eager to dedicate the rest of my life to being a businessperson in a large corporation — and this hasn’t changed. My parents very much respected my independence and my choices, but did ask whether I had considered a profession in an industry that had an established system for female workers, such as medicine, law or the civil service.

So far, my career has been a very rewarding one and I have never regretted the path I chose, although I occasionally think back to that conversation and the significance of it.

Whenever I share this story, many assume that my parents were trying to guide me into a specific career, but that was not at all what they were thinking. As a Japanese woman, even after the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1985, they were concerned that I may be trapped in a narrow career path at a very large company.

Now, as a Japanese woman working at the management level in business, I am often asked about women in the workforce in Japan. While it’s never an easy question to answer, it is true that the situation — at least on the surface — has changed considerably since I started my career.

Like every country, Japan is grappling with questions surrounding the participation of women in the labour force, the number of women in senior leadership and on boards, and whether women should return to work after having children.

It’s important to go beyond government policy and drive a shift in mindset

Despite some changes, the statistics for Japan look pretty bleak: We’re currently ranked 111 out of 145 nations on the World Economic Forum’s The Global Gender Gap Report 2016.

In recent years, the Japanese government has taken steps to improve gender equality. These overt efforts are important, because they send a signal to the world that Japan recognizes the need for change in order to remain competitive in the global economy.

On top of targets and quotas, we still need to address fundamental infrastructure issues such as childcare, eldercare, domestic help and the overall labour environment: working hours, evaluation systems, and a labour market that lacks liquidity.

Companies are also key drivers of change and diversity in Japan. At AIG Japan, we believe that gender diversity is the key to our business and future. We recognize the positive impact diversity has in terms of knowledge sharing, innovation, value creation and overall company performance. It’s important to go beyond government policy and drive a shift in mindset, and we do that by offering various work–life balance initiatives. We have established a Women’s Development Program, sponsored by the CEO, to continue to support women’s careers, and we have a number of self-organized, grassroots employee resource groups that include Women & Allies, LGBT & Allies, Working Families and Young Professionals.

Aside from companies and the government in Japan, we have to look at what is happening elsewhere. I recently had the opportunity to attend a special International Woman’s Day breakfast meeting hosted by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan with Lise Thériault, deputy premiere of Québec, and several other women leaders in Japan from the public and private sectors.

The meeting was a great opportunity for all of us to share ideas and find out more about what’s being done in Canada and elsewhere. The situation in Canada is remarkable. Women there hold 37 per cent of senior management roles versus Japan’s 7 per cent. This shows that, over time, there can be significant change.

In Japan, we’re a little behind, but we’re catching up. When I look at young women starting their careers here today, I hope they have a stronger support structure, more diverse values, as well as a broader cultural outlook and mindset than were the prevailing order in the past. I am eager to help pave the way.

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