Encouraging Women’s Empowerment in the US & Japan: A Japan Society Forum

japan.JPGBy Jarod Cerf

Although Japan and the U.S. occupy somewhat different rankings in The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, both Yoriko Kawaguchi, Japan’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs (’02-‘04) and Environment (’00-’02), and Ruth Porat, Executive Vice President and CFO of Morgan Stanley, are confident that a call to empower women was essential to any country’s “core growth strategy”—as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refers to his 2012 initiative.

Government Policy as an Agent of Empowerment
“There are three critical components driving Abe’s proposal,” Kawaguchi explained at the Japan Society’s forum on policy, culture, and business practice as a means for providing greater opportunities. “The first is a declining birth rate and the resulting reductions in our future labor force; the second is the need for greater diversity in skills, background, and expertise—which is where women, both foreign and Japanese, can serve as a catalyst for growth.”

Though traditionally Japan has held to a promise of promotion, described by Kawaguchi as “seniority assistance” or “lifetime employment”, women who leave the workforce to raise and tend to their families often find it difficult to return to the same company or at the same level as their peers who remained employed.

To counter this, the Japanese government is funding a series of public day care and educational facilities near transportation hubs, investing in training programs for women and the companies who employ them, and providing assistance for those who seek to develop their own businesses.

“The last component,” as Kawaguchi noted, “is the evolving notion, in Japan, of gender equality as a means of ensuring our human rights; that we can no longer afford to do without the contributions of women in our effort to create a more just society.”

Changing Culture through the Practices We Employ
According to Porat, though, such a change or shift in culture is often subject to gradual progress and unusual proponents. “When the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” she explained, “there were, allegedly, certain Congress members who supported the inclusion of women’s rights under the belief that the modified bill would be seen as too outrageous to pass.

“And while the statistics today are meaningfully better than they were fifty years ago,” Porat admonished, “They’re not where they should be. What we need now are structural changes, at the national and corporate level, that will enable women to have both a family and a vibrant career—which in practical terms means approving of a federal paid family leave policy, like the FAMILY Act.

“We should also hold our business leaders, both men and women, accountable for who they hire,” she said. “Particularly when they consider succession plans, which should be made as clear and transparent as possible. Governance protocol should ensure that organizations analyze best practices and develop a thorough pipeline and as well what we call ‘depth charts’—where we clarify diverse candidates and identify additional stretch goals.”

“Finally, having women in senior roles at your company sends a message to generations that any title is within reach,” Porat emphasized. “And we’ll see the multiplier effect, where these women can serve as a magnet for other talented individuals. As President Kennedy said, ‘change does not happen, it is made to happen.’ And it begins with inspiring leaders who challenge a nation, or company, to defy conventional thinking and set the new standard.”

Determining the Measure for Progress
The issue of enforcement, however, remained a point of contention, as one attendee cited in address to Kawaguchi: “Given how similar Prime Minster Abe’s initiative is to the intent behind Japan’s 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law,” he asked, “what reason do you have to believe the results this time will be different—particularly when both lack the necessary means to promote compliance?”

Kawaguchi’s response, while measured, suggested that we’re only now beginning to see the impact of previous legislation: “There are young women, now, who are capable, who have been with the corporations for twenty to thirty years. And these people did not exist as a workforce prior to 1986.”

On the matter of government mandated quotas, though, Kawaguchi opted to reply with an inquiry of her own. “As a free and capitalist country, would it be fair,” she asked, “to tell these corporations that they should be hiring, in accordance with the law, or that their board should consist of at least ten percent women?”

“The problem with quotas,” she continued, “Is that they are only sustainable if you have a sufficient mass of people who are capable of promotion to a senior level.”

Porat, likewise, viewed the notion of quotas as “anathema to the American way of business” and echoed Kawaguchi’s call to focus more on “broadening the pool of eligible candidates” to include women who have sought employment with international and foreign companies. She also suggested that we have to foster a greater conversation among the minds of those who will change the culture of both countries in the years to come.

And while Prime Minister Abe’s promise of a fully thirty percent female work workforce by 2020 may provide a start to that conversation, “what we need most,” as Porat clarified, “Is to move beyond the point where our accomplishments are lauded with ‘and she is a woman, also’.”