Womenomics pioneer tells bosses in Japan to nurture female talent

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By Isabel Reynolds

Japan has hit a wall on progress for working women after a big push, and the pioneer of “womenomics” thinks she has the answer.

It’s been 20 years since Kathy Matsui, vice chair of Goldman Sachs Japan, first showed how empowered women could bolster the economy of the rapidly aging and labor-starved country, in a series of reports that helped spur the government  to take action.

Japan’s female labor force participation is now higher than in the US, but it’s fallen well short of its target of getting women into 30 percent of supervisory positions in all fields by 2020. And that’s not entirely the  fault of authorities, Matsui said in an interview with Bloomberg. Companies need to learn to retain and train women, across the region, not just in Japan.

“Governments can only do so much, they can’t intervene in the inner workings of an organization,” Matsui said. “That’s going to be where the next stage is, if we really want to hit those targets.”

Her  book  How to Nurture Female Employees  will be published by Chuko Shinsho Rakure in Japanese on Thursday.

To be effective, diversity policies need to be run right from the top of companies, which should establish networking opportunities for female employees to discourage them from quitting, she said. Mentors and sponsors can help promising women succeed.

“I grew up in America, thinking boys and girls are exactly identical, there’s absolutely no difference and why should we be treated differently,” Matsui said. “Over my almost 30-year career in this industry, I’ve come to realize there are definite differences.”

She said she often sees a confidence gap, with women questioning their own qualifications for a new role, focusing on the negative side of evaluations and sometimes needing to be asked twice before accepting a promotion.

Ask twice

“Rarely does that second conversation happen,” Matsui noted, adding that she asks CEOs: “Why didn’t you push? Why didn’t you ask her again and say I’ll back you?”

She explains that the worst career advice she ever received as a young woman was to work hard and keep her head down. Managers need to tell women to keep “their antennae up,” be aware of opportunities and learn to promote themselves, she said.

Matsui’s book comes as the number of women employed in Japan fell in April for the first time in more than eight years, reflecting the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic. Most workingwomen in Japan lack full-time status, which means they have fewer benefits and little job security.

“I don’t think Japan is unique in this regard. Women have borne the brunt of the job displacement—look at the US, look at Europe,”  she said. “The majority of women who work outside the home are in temporary or irregular jobs. Naturally, they’re again going to suffer more.”

School closures have also placed an added burden on women, who tend to handle the vast majority of household and family duties in Japan.

Yet the pandemic hasn’t been all negative for working women with families, because it has spurred a move toward remote working, Matsui said. Fujitsu, for example, said this week it will cut its office space in Japan by 50 percent over the next three years, encouraging 80,000 office workers to primarily do their jobs from home.

Disappointed that Japan has failed to reach its targets for women managers— media reports indicate they may be delayed for another decade—Matsui wants the government to explain and address the obstacles, which include tax incentives for married women to work full time.

Japan already boasts generous parental leave rights and companies are required to publish data about the status of their female employees and managers. The government has also passed a law meant to stop companies from paying full-time workers more than their part-time colleagues if they perform the same tasks.

Yet a government survey published last July showed the proportion of women in management positions in companies with more than 10 employees had risen to 11.8 percent, up 0.3 percentage points, but still well short of the 30-percent target.

From the investment side, a belated rush in Japan to so-called Environment, Government and Governance or sustainable assets is also pressuring companies to do more to improve diversity. From less than a trillion yen ($9 billion) in assets under management five years ago, it grew to 340 trillion yen last year, according to Matsui.

For her, enabling women to reach their potential at work is not a matter of corporate social responsibility.

“This is a war for talent, particularly in this country,” she said. “If you want to win, you want to compete, you’ve got to attract the best people.” Bloomberg News

Image credits: Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Bloomberg



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