Though hard to detect at a distance, there are cracks in the glass ceiling of Japan Inc.
Late last month, about 60 female executives of companies and organizations gathered in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills to launch the Japan chapter of the global group Women Corporate Directors. The group is unusual because its members are mainly directors and board members of public or large privately held companies.
“We created the Japan chapter of the WCD to increase the value of female board members in Japan,” said cochair Izumi Kobayashi, who is CEO and executive vice president of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency.
Founded four years ago in the U.S. by Susan Stautberg, CEO of PartnerCom Corp., WCD is an exceptional network of female corporate leaders whose members share information and experiences in the pursuit of good governance with a global vision.
Stautberg was later joined by Alison Winter, former president and CEO of Personal Financial Services — Northeast for Northern Trust Corp., and now a director of Nordstrom Inc.
The group’s 1,800 worldwide members are at the top of their organizations, working as CEOs, COOs, divisional presidents and other executive positions, according to the WCD.
However, the Japan chapter’s other cochair, Merle Aiko Okawara, chairwoman of JC Comsa Corp., admitted it was difficult to find women who were serving on the boards of big companies since no such list existed in Japan.
“We had to literally check board member lists of all the listed companies one by one, and take a guess as to which board members were women,” Okawara said. “Then, we decided to send out invitations for the inaugural meeting to whoever had a name ending in the Chinese character ‘ko’ because many Japanese female names end with that character.”
In the end, the group sent out more than 200 invitations.
Among those at the inaugural meeting April 26 were Shoko Ikeda, president of Bull-Dog Sauce Co., Kiyomi Saito, president and CEO of JBond Totan Securities Co. and an outside director of Toshiba Corp., and Nobuko Matsubara, an outside director of Mitsui & Co. and Daiwa Securities Co.
Okawara noted that although more women are entering Japan’s workforce, few companies actively encourage them to become middle managers or aim for higher positions.
According to data from the internal affairs ministry, the ranks of women in the workforce thin out over time, as they leave after marriage or when they give birth.
“Unlike Europe and the U.S., Japanese companies do not have a business culture of headhunting executives from other companies, and they tend to choose most executives from their own employees,” she said. “So unless there are many women in middle management, it is unlikely that Japanese companies will have more female board members (since they don’t have many female candidates to choose from).”
Although there are no official statistics, a survey of more than a million companies conducted by Teikoku Databank in 2012 found only 81,358 had a woman as president, or about 7.2 percent of the total.
The WCD’s Japan chapter is accepting applications for membership at an annual rate of $125. Seminars and dinner sessions are planned to provide members with the chance to interact and increase the overall number of female executives, especially at large corporations.
“I’m not saying that everyone should aim to have a top position, but at least opportunities should be given to women who work hard to get higher positions, and having a role model could be one incentive for those women,” said Kobayashi.
Okawara agreed: “Just like a marathon runner needs a goal, if female executives and board members are around, young women who join the workforce can run toward that goal.”