Women and business in spotlight

International conferences show just how bad Japan has been

by Mie Sakamoto

Kyodo News

GIFU — Two recent APEC-related international conferences in Japan on the role of women in business highlighted how far the nation lags behind other developed countries in female social advancement.

Leaping at this opportunity, female entrepreneurs in Japan are hoping to develop networks to share information and make it easier to conduct business.

“Japan still falls behind in having women participate in society,” said 34-year-old Kyoko Yokota, who in 2006 set up Colabolabo Co., a Tokyo-based firm helping female entrepreneurs to network.

“There have been few opportunities to listen to the stories of those who are ahead of us. It is significant that we can learn about advanced cases overseas,” she said of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit, held last Friday in Gifu Prefecture.

The conference and a Women Leaders Network meeting held in Tokyo in September each produced policy proposals to be reported to an APEC meeting of ministers in charge of small and midsize businesses.

“It is fitting that this summit is being held in conjunction with APEC’s small-medium enterprise ministerial meeting, particularly since women-run SMEs are accelerators of economic growth,” said Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, in her opening remarks at the summit in Gifu.

She said that although the 21 economies in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum make up nearly 60 percent of total global economic output, female potential is largely untapped, and women’s economic participation will play an important part in seeking broader growth.

But Japan is still struggling to find effective ways to advance women in society, even though the country is keenly aware of the need as it faces a dwindling workforce amid the declining birthrate.

Japan ranked 101st out of 134 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index released in 2009. The index assesses gender gaps by examining economic participation, education, political empowerment and health.

The government estimated in June in its annual report on gender equality that if Japan improves the labor environment so fewer women quit when they get married or have a child, the working population would grow by as many as 4.45 million people.

Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, who served as an executive in many companies, including Nissan Motor Co., pointed out at the summit that the situation surrounding working women in Japan is still severe, although it has improved to a “dreamlike” level compared with about 40 years ago when she started working.

Japan still “falls far behind” other countries in enabling women to fully exercise their abilities in society, and the main cause is a deep-rooted perception about gender roles that husbands should work outside and wives should stay at home, Hayashi said, adding this notion has given working women “an invisible wall and a feeling of pressure.”

Yokota of Colabolabo said women in big companies tend to have fewer opportunities to take management roles such as by making business plans, and that the lack of such experience later becomes a disadvantage for women who leave the corporate world to start their own businesses.

However, Yokota sees some positive signs that could give women a supportive push in starting or expanding their businesses — the “female marketing” strategy that has become widespread among companies in the past 10 years.

“In the past, we were merely asked (by companies) to give opinions, but we are now often asked to be a member of a team to contribute to the process of commercialization,” she said.

In addition to the global move to promote more social and economic advancement for women, the world has also begun to see them as influential consumers who can help businesses prosper if they cater to their needs.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, women worldwide make or influence at least 64 percent of all purchases of a wide variety of products.

The consulting firm predicts that $20 trillion of spending power that women now possess will climb, while their earnings will also continue to increase.

“The female economy has taken off” as more women have started to work full time, said Michael Silverstein, managing director of the Boston Consulting Group.

“They earn higher salaries and that gives them power at home. It is a self-fulfilling cycle of success,” he added.