Men need to shed their deeply ingrained leadership mentality and tap female innovation, especially in Japan, where women could be the key to regaining competitiveness and igniting the rapid economic growth being experienced in many other parts of Asia.
That was the main message gleaned from the 17th International Conference for Women in Business held July 28 in Tokyo’s Odaiba district.
The 800 mainly working women who gathered for the event used it to exchange ideas on what they believe is required for women to enhance their presence as a global human resource and change the male-oriented society around them.
The participants, mainly from Japan, were also looking for ways to enhance their careers and pursue global job opportunities.
Organized by marketing and consulting firm ewoman Inc., speakers ranging from entrepreneurs, nonprofit organization leaders, politicians and professors, male and female alike, presented their experiences and views under this year’s theme: “We move the world forward.”
The Japan Times, Intel Corp., the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan were among the sponsors of the one-day event.
“I wanted to meet my female comrades,” said Yoko Fujimoto, 39, a career counselor and mother of a 4-year old girl who came to the event from Oita Prefecture, which she described as “a male-dominated society.”
The participants ranged in age from 14 to 80, and came from as far away as Hokkaido and Fukuoka Prefecture, as well as from the United States, India, China and Germany.
Speaker Stuti Jalan, founder and managing director of Crosshairs Communication in India, stressed that a growing number of female business leaders have emerged in the subcontinent and now play an important role.
“Women are the key drivers for economic growth,” Jalan said.
As for how to work with people with various cultural backgrounds, speaker Makiko Eda, director of marketing and consumer sales for Intel Asia Pacific in Hong Kong, said it is important to have an open mind to different ethnicities.
“I’ve tried not to judge people by (the stereotype that) certain countries think things in certain ways,” said Eda, who manages workers from 15 different countries.
The presentation by Lin Kobayashi, an executive director of the Foundation for International School of Asia in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, focused on educating future leaders.
Kobayashi introduced ISAK, an international boarding school set to open next year that will teach students from around Asia how to develop leadership skills. She said it will be the first school of its kind in Japan.
Kobayashi said to achieve the school’s mission, it is important to ensure the student body is diverse not only in terms of nationality, but also in gender, religion and background. Through this environment, students will face the challenges of an increasingly complex world, she said.
Kobayashi said that philosophy stems from her background, including her education at an international boarding school in Canada, her stay at the home of a friend in Mexico, and her experience as an officer at the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund in the Philippines.
Also among the speakers was Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who flew aboard a NASA space shuttle and a Soyuz capsule. From his experience working in an international environment, Noguchi said that global workers, like astronauts, need to have the skills to manage changing situations swiftly and to adjust to foreign cultures easily.
The conference broke into smaller sessions in the afternoon to discuss how women can develop and expand career opportunities.
One session focused on how women can affect the economy and how few were actually in managerial positions. Some lawmakers, including Takako Ebata of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and Seiko Noda of the Liberal Democratic Party, pointed out that Japanese companies don’t have numerical targets for female managers because they aren’t pressured by incentives, either legal or economic.
They also lamented that 25 percent of Japanese firms still want female workers to quit if they give birth.
Another session dealt with women in managerial posts.
Speaker Nahoko Shindo, a medical officer for the World Health Organization, opined that part of the job of being a female manager was the need to manage jealousy in the workplace.
“I often try to praise male (subordinates),” she said.
As more Japanese companies try to tap global talent, managers are facing a tougher time running an increasingly diverse workforce.
In a session to discuss how to communicate in a diverse environment, panelists warned against drawing automatic assumptions when dealing with people of different backgrounds.
“The platinum rule is not to treat people in the way you want but to treat them in the way they want to be treated,” said Joana Sock Ja Park, president of Appassionate Inc., a consultancy that advises on workforce diversity. “You have to ask what’s important to them.”
The panelists all seemed to agree that corporate Japan was not ready to embrace diversity because their businesses still follows a traditional path.
“You can’t have both,” said Wendela Elsen, special adviser for human capital at PricewaterhouseCoopers Aarata in Japan. “If you want to hold onto the Japanese culture and do business in the Japanese way, but you want to slot some foreigners into the workforce, that’s just not going to work.”
Although the latest labor ministry report said women in managerial positions had risen to almost to 9 percent nationwide from two years ago, Japanese account for only a fraction of those worldwide.
Some female executive speakers at another panel session emphasized how women can have an impact in Asia by exploiting their “outstanding nature” to make a greater impression than their male coworkers.
Eda of Intel Asia Pacific said women are known as better communicators and collaborators in male-dominated industries.
“I tell my male coworkers that working together is my thing,” said Eda, who was transferred to Hong Kong two years ago to take the executive position. “But if you are not really used to it, too bad, I am a woman.”
As the market is shifting more to Asia and the world is becoming smaller, panelists said the emergence of female power will bring a new dynamic to the region.
“Women, partly because they have not been in the mainstream of society and the economy, their views and perspectives are going to be appreciated greatly,” said Yoko Ishikura, professor at the Keio University graduate school of Media Design, adding that it is up to women to take the initiative and run with it.
The forum participants said they were inspired by the discussions.
A 30-year-old woman representing a corporate union in Nagoya said she felt the talks were constructive.
“When women gather, they often tend to grumble. But I understood what we should do to make the gatherings constructive,” she said.
Fujimoto from Oita said she was encouraged by one panelist’s comment that children become more independent when their mothers are not perfect.
“That really changed my philosophy on my child’s upbringing,” she said.
“I was also very inspired by Lin Kobayashi’s keynote speech. I highly admire her for doing something that everybody else said she could not do,” she said.