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Making life easier for working moms

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Yukari Horie, 30, is managing director of Arrow Arrow, a Tokyo-based NPO that offers consulting to companies with female workers who are in the later stages of their pregnancy or who have just become moms and are wondering how to adjust their work styles to accommodate their life needs. Horie’s group, set up in 2010, is in high demand these days, as more than 60 percent of women in Japan leave the workforce after giving birth, due to difficulties they face in balancing life and family. Arrow Arrow advises companies on how to review workers’ jobs and streamline them, which often results in cuts in overtime and improved efficiency across the organization, she says. Horie also organizes discussion groups for individual workers so they can share work-life balance (WLB) issues and find solutions.

How did you become interested in helping women get back to work?

Well, our generation entered the workforce in the so-called “Ice Age” for new graduates, so we had a really hard time finding jobs. My friend from university got a position in the marketing division or something of a clothing company, which she had listed as her first choice. I was very happy for her, but she ended up rejecting the offer, saying she wouldn’t have felt confident about raising a kid while working for that company. I got into a big fight with her, but I also wondered whether I was right to criticize her. In Japan, many people with babies can continue working only if they don’t mind doing lots of overtime. I thought that if there’s no environment for working mothers to continue their jobs, I should be the one to help create it.

How did you go about putting your idea into action?

I thought I needed some real-life experience first, so after university I joined an employment agency, which had about 150 employees and was just about to create its human resources division. As a member of the new division, I helped create “corporate visions,” hired staff and did all other types of HR work. But then I saw many employees leaving the company because the work environment was so tough, and wondered if I was doing the right thing. That’s when I learned of Florence (a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization that runs nurseries for sick children). I was so inspired by the group’s philosophy I decided to leave the company and join the NPO as a volunteer. It turned out that Florence was looking for a work-life-balance consultant then, so I got a job there.

You worked for Florence for about two years before setting up Arrow Arrow. Do you still keep in touch with people from Florence?

Yes. I share their vision. But Florence specializes in offering child care to working mothers (to solve the problems of them not being able to use regular day care on days when their kids have a mild fever). On the other hand, because of the experience I had with my old college friend, I have always wanted to help women who don’t have enough confidence to keep working as mothers. And I focus my consulting work on small companies, which lag behind in implementation of family-friendly policies. I thought l should specialize in small companies that have no previous experience of having female workers who return to work after they give birth. Having someone actually go through it for the first time is really a big opportunity for that company to change. If a company can handle their first case successfully, it’s much easier for subsequent workers.

Does the government offer any help to small companies that let women return to their original jobs?

Right. Companies with 100 or fewer employees are eligible for state subsidies of up to ¥900,000 or ¥1 million per employee they keep for a year after they come back from maternity/child-care leave.

Part of the difficulty in pursuing WLB in Japan, it seems, is that everyone thinks their industry, their company or their job is special and different from others — like how it’s impossible for journalists to have WLB, how jobs in the IT industry require a 24-hour/seven-days-a-week commitment, how schoolteachers can’t afford a break, etc. Do you think that WLB is unattainable for some professions?

I wouldn’t say every woman with a little baby can go back to their original position. But I also think a lot of issues can be solved by work-sharing. In many parts of Europe — the Netherlands, for example — work sharing is possible even for police officers and teachers.

A recent survey by continuing education provider U-Can found that a majority of single women want to quit working after having a baby. Do you observe such tendencies among women you meet?

I’ve seen women gradually lose their confidence and give up as they face a series of challenges — like how they were planning to get back to work but couldn’t find a spot in day care (due to a serious shortage of day-care centers in some municipalities), or how their partners would not cooperate with parenting. I think that survey has shown that becoming a full-time housewife is no longer possible for many women (due to their economic needs), and it merely shows their craving for an unattainable status. I think people’s perception will change if we can present more diverse role models for women; then, continuing to work after their child is born wouldn’t be considered such a sad thing, but it could be taken a positive option.