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It’s been a dismal decade for gender equality in Japan.

To say that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s womenomics strategy has underdelivered would be an understatement. Far from becoming “a Japan in which women can shine,” women are still hugely underrepresented in leadership roles, with the promise to fill 30 percent of leadership positions in society by 2020 now downgraded to a non-binding, distant goal for 2030.

And the gender gap is widening: This year saw Japan slide 11 places to 121st out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020. (Japan ranked 80th place in 2006.)

Even without the statistics, all you have to do is look around to see how long the road to gender parity is. From respected pundits and essayists to corporate boards and the new Cabinet, the faces of Japan’s public and professional landscape are overwhelmingly male.

In this context, an initiative like SpeakHer is timely and necessary.

Created by Tutti Quintella, Yan Fan and Ann Kilzer, SpeakHer aims to assist event organizers by providing a free bilingual database of public speakers in Japan who are women. The initiative seeks to address the gender imbalance of presenters at conferences and other such events. Initiatives like these have mushroomed worldwide as a response to the pervasive “manel,” or all-male panel. However, SpeakHer is the first of its kind in this country.

Expanding the conversation: Software engineer Ann Kilzer says that when women aren’t included on speaking panels, the audience is missing out on essential ideas.
Expanding the conversation: Software engineer Ann Kilzer says that when women aren’t included on speaking panels, the audience is missing out on essential ideas.

Earlier this spring, entrepreneur Emi Takemura Miller approached Fan with the idea for SpeakHer. Fan contacted Quintella, the Lead Program Manager for Diversity & Inclusion at Mercari and a director of the Tokyo chapter for Women Who Code, who in turn roped in software engineer Kilzer. Recognizing a gap in Japan that needed filling, they spent the summer months writing code in their spare time, officially launching SpeakHer on Aug. 29.

“The excuse we hear over and over again is just that there were no women available,” says Fan, co-founder and CTO of coding bootcamp Code Chrysalis. “As women, we know that’s not the case, they’re just not getting these opportunities.”

Part of the problem, say Fan and Kilzer, is that event organizers tend to reach out to their existing networks. These tend to be people similar to them; in other words, they are likely to be other men.

Another problem is the so-called women-only panel. While this can seem like a progressive initiative on its surface, it often results in women being pigeonholed into segregated panels and events. In Fan’s experience, some organizers even seem to think that actively seeking out women will “lower (their) standards.”

“We want to normalize seeing women as experts on a panel,” she says, adding that doing so will help others to see women as the experts they are..

In what feels like a bubble era anecdote, Fan recalls being asked to recommend women in senior positions to speak at a tech conference in 2017. However, the resulting roster of speakers turned out to be primarily young, attractive women early in their careers — not the experienced professionals in their late 30s and 40s she had suggested.

“That was when I realized, you’re not looking for someone with expertise,” she says. “You’re looking to have a superficial event and pass it off as women’s empowerment.”

Speaking up: Tutti Quintella is one of the founders of SpeakHer, an organization whose goal is to get more women on discussion panels. |
Speaking up: Tutti Quintella is one of the founders of SpeakHer, an organization whose goal is to get more women on discussion panels.

Is a more diverse and inclusive panel really worth the effort? Absolutely, say the founders. Manels are problematic on multiple levels. They overlook an entire group of experts who would have added depth and nuance to the conversation by dint of their different experiences. A diverse panel with more perspectives means a richer experience for attendees and speakers alike. More women speaking also provides role models for underrepresented groups in the younger generation to emulate.

“When you limit the range of perspectives, you’re really just limiting the conversation,” says Fan. Kilzer agrees, adding that “it’s also about giving space in order to value and hear women’s voices.”

Aspects of Japan’s male-dominated world are facing increasing scrutiny: foreign investors rejecting all-male boards or numerous comparisons between Suga’s new cabinet and other more gender-inclusive governments worldwide, for example. In this vein, Robin Lewis, co-founder of free water refill app MyMizu, points out that manels are embarrassing from an organizational standpoint, stressing that they “should become an organizational risk for big companies.”

SpeakHer is one tool in what should be a collective effort. As such, men can also do their part by making space for someone else to speak. Though he doesn’t personally know other men who do the same, Lewis himself has begun turning down requests to speak on panels that aren’t sufficiently inclusive, often suggesting his co-founder Mariko McTier in lieu.

“We need to be more vocal about these things, and not just in English but in Japanese, too,” says Lewis. “Ultimately, this is how we make change in Japan.”

One challenge for SpeakHer is ensuring that it is not perceived as a purely “foreign” initiative. Noting that this was a concern from the outset, the team took pains to make the site fully bilingual. Their networks mean that a large proportion of women who have applied or nominated others are affiliated with the tech industry, but SpeakHer is open to all fields from art to medicine.

Most importantly, the founders want SpeakHer to be a catalyst for empowering women and helping them emerge as speakers, regardless of where they are in their careers.

“Many women just don’t feel like they’re experts, but we really want to push the message that everyone has something to share,” says Fan. Kilzer adds that it’s also about explaining what it is to be a public speaker: “You’re saying, I have a voice, and a story as well.”

“We believe that Japan can do better,” says Fan. ”This is what we’re putting out into the world to be a little part of the difference, and the change we want to see.”

For more information on SpeakHer, visit speakher.jp.

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