Faced with a domestic economy that is sputtering, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has in recent months attempted to promote a sector that has long been underutilized in Japan — women.

Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly in New York last year, Abe pledged “to create a society in which women shine.” Dubbed “womenonics” — a term coined by by Goldman Sachs Managing Director Kathy Matsui in 1999 — it’s a policy he’s pushed ever since, posing for countless photo opportunities whilst surrounded by women at the top of their respective fields.

In essence, Abe wants 30 percent of all leadership posts nationwide to be held by women by 2020. Based on current statistics, however, that goal is a long way from being achieved.

Female politicians accounted for just 8.1 percent of all lawmakers in the Lower House before the prime minister dissolved it last week.

Of greater concern, the latest statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare show that the ratio of female management in 3,873 companies was just 6.6 percent in fiscal 2013 — a drop from 6.8 percent recorded in fiscal 2011.

A number of large companies, however, appear unfazed by Abe’s sudden interest in female empowerment or his ambitious 30 percent goal. Many have already introduced initiatives at their own enterprises and are confident they will be able to meet what they consider to be realistic goals.

Nissan Motor Co.’s awareness toward diversity goes back to the 1999 alliance with French partner Renault SA, which already had women in leadership positions.

Yoshiko Terakami, manager of Nissan’s Diversity Development Office, says the company focused on diversity at the insistence of President Carlos Ghosn, who set up a special section devoted to empowerment in 2004.

“Ghosn argued that Nissan had more potential in the field of diversity, and he spearheaded a diversity project,” Terakami says. “At that time, people had to look up the word diversity in the dictionary. Others thought it referred to antenna diversity (a wireless diversity scheme that uses two or more antennas to improve the quality and reliability of a wireless link).”

Nissan has introduced a number of initiatives to help women return to work after having children, including the creation of its own internal day care center, allowing employees to take home company computers so that they are connected during their leave and implementing a fixed number of work-at-home days per month for parents who may need to stay at home to take care of a sick child or an elderly parent.

Only 1.6 percent of managers at Nissan in 2004 were female, a ratio that has climbed to 7.1 percent this year. Nissan wishes to attain a ratio of 10 percent of women in managerial positions by 2017. And just last month, former Nissan employee Keiko Tanaka became the first female ambassador selected from the private sector to be stationed in Uruguay.

“Achieving 30 percent isn’t possible within certain industries,” Terakami says. “If that goal is enforced, it could end up with promotions that are far from ideal. Women could be promoted for the sake of meeting numerical targets and I don’t think that is (Abe’s) original intention.”

At Mizuho Financial Group Inc., the diversity movement began around 2003. The banking giant has a basic female empowerment policy that they call “4R” — recruit, raise, retain and relate.

Mizuho has three main career paths for employees to choose from: relocate anywhere in the world, limit themselves to a particular region or stay in one location. It has also established a relocation system for those who want to move with their spouses without leaving the company, and a rehiring system for those who were forced to resign due to child care, nursing or the transfer of their spouses.

“Women have so many different ways of thinking when it comes to work — some want to stay connected to society in some way but also place importance on family, while others want to work in the same way as men do,” says Itsuko Igarashi, general manager of Mizuho’s Diversity Promotion Department. “So we have set up a system that incorporates all women with various values.”

Since 2006, the company has been working toward ensuring that women account for 15 percent of management positions by the end of March 2015. Mizuho expects to meet this target.

Achieving a 30 percent ratio by 2020 is likely to be more difficult, but Igarashi says the company is currently hiring plenty of women to make this a reality in future. In mid-March, Mizuho said it planned to appoint an internal female executive officer — the first of the three mega-banks in Japan to do so.

“We plan to focus on men next because we cannot achieve true diversity without them,” Igarashi says, adding that Mizuho wants male employees to support their female counterparts and be engaged in the family at home.

Former state-owned Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT) has established a broad range of initiatives to promote female empowerment.

It set up a diversity section in 2007 but has had female-oriented policies on maternity leave and flexible working hours in place since the 1960s because of the large proportion of women it had on its roster back in the day.

More recently, NTT has set up a “life-plan leave” in which employees can set aside and accumulate paid vacation to use for a variety of purposes, including fertility treatment. “People have many different situations whether they are men or women and we have a very solid system to ensure that people can continue their jobs,” says Wakana Matsumura, head of NTT’s diversity section.

As of 2012, the ratio of female management in NTT’s 59 major group companies was 2.9 percent. The company wants to double that to 6 percent by 2020.

“We are aware that 6 percent might seem small compared to 30 percent but that is the reality of the current situation,” Matsumura says. “It is important to develop resources so that they are ready to take on the leadership role when the time comes.”

One recent challenge NTT has faced is that the women themselves often focus so much on utilizing the various company policies that they lose sight of the original goal — that these systems were installed to help women hired to contribute to the company. With a solid support system in place, NTT’s focus is now on changing people’s awareness — to spread the importance and further understanding of female empowerment, not only to men but women as well.

“Female empowerment ultimately benefits the company, not women,” Matsumura says. “It is important for the company to have each of its employees — men and women — contribute in their own way. Diversity is natural by definition and I am looking forward to the day when we don’t even need this special department anymore.”

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