Mother beats the odds in male-dominated society

Female diplomat has rare work-life balance

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Hikariko Ono has always been a survivor in Japan’s male-dominated society.

When Ono started her career at the Foreign Ministry in 1988, she was the only female among 26 incoming career diplomats. Now a top government spokeswoman, she said she was unfazed at the time, having also been in the minority at Hitotsubashi University, a top-tier public institution.

“I had learned to adjust myself to the male-dominated world at college because female students only accounted for 10 percent of the student body at Hitotsubashi at that time,” said Ono, who became director of global communications at the prime minister’s office in early August. “It was an about-face from my years at an all-girls’ junior high school and high school.”

In the more than 20 years since Ono became one of the few female diplomats, the situation has not changed much, if at all.

The latest Global Gender Gap Report compiled by the World Economic Forum last week showed that Japan ranked 101 out of 135 countries in 2012, down from 98 last year. In the same survey, China ranked 69th.

As a spokeswoman to the foreign press, Ono’s mission goes beyond explaining Japan’s strategies for dealing with such problems as the ballooning debt and graying population: She is determined to show the world that working mothers, in spite of the struggles of juggling careers and family life, can have it all in Japan.

“I have to admit that Japan does not offer the best working environment for women,” said Ono, who has a 9-year-old son. “I want to show that a working mother can manage to do this kind of job in Japan.”

Although the government boasts that the nation’s female employment rate is at a record high of 60 percent, Japan lags behind its global counterparts. Among the Group of Seven major countries except for Italy, the female employment rate hovers around 70 percent.

Studies have shown gender inequalities are eroding the economic competitiveness of Japan, which was the world’s second-largest economy until overtaken by China in 2010.

According to the International Monetary Fund, if Japan can raise the female employment rate to 70 percent, it will increase per capita gross domestic product by 5 percent. A report by Goldman Sachs in 2010 suggested that if Japan can bring the rate to 80 percent, it would boost GDP by 15 percent.

But hitting this target won’t be easy as long as it remains difficult for women to achieve a work-life balance in Japan.

Before Ono was appointed to her current post, she worked in sections dealing with the global environment, Japan’s yen loan program and the World Trade Organization, all of which required her to work day and night.

At her busiest, she had to work until 2 a.m. and take a taxi home with her husband, who also works at the Foreign Ministry.

Such a demanding career forced her to put off having a baby until 10 years into her marriage. She gave birth to her son when she was 38 while posted as first secretary at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

“I do not have many regrets in my life, but I wish I had had a baby much younger so that my son might have a brother or sister,” said Ono, who was fortunate enough to find a day care center that’s open around the clock. “I thought it was impossible to have a baby at that time, but in retrospect, I could have managed it.”

Ono’s concern is shared by many women in Japan, where child care support for working mothers is still considered insufficient.

As a result, 70 percent of working women quit their jobs before giving birth. Even though the number of day care centers has increased over the years, more than 25,000 children are still on waiting lists.

There are also few female role models for women striving to have both a profession and a family.

Just 6 percent of those on a career track in Japan are women. Only 2.5 percent of section directors or above at government ministries are women. The government aims to double the figure by 2016.

Rather than waiting for the government to act, Ono took the initiative and established, with other working mothers, the Global Moms Network in 2009 with the goal of raising children who can compete in the global environment.

Even though child-rearing takes away from her time for research and study, Ono said her experience as a mother makes her a better diplomat.

Sharing experiences as a parent with her negotiation counterparts sometimes breaks the ice and makes the talks go more smoothly, she said. That is why she tells her junior colleagues that they should not hesitate to have children, if given the opportunity.

“Fear is sometimes greater than danger. We can manage to have it all if we want,” said Ono.

In her new role as spokeswoman, Ono intends to capitalize on her skills as a female diplomat even when she has to address highly controversial issues, including contentious territorial disputes.

“How you say things changes the impression. To garner broad public support, I would like to communicate in a calm and gentle way rather than just keeping a stern manner.”