To get your point across in the United States, you have to stand up for yourself — whether you are a man or a woman.
This is one of the lessons Yukako Uchinaga, head of IBM Japan Ltd.’s software development lab, learned during her visits abroad.
When presenting in English, “my feet are apart, one hand in my pocket,” she said.
“In Japan, of course, I would have both hands clasped together in front of me. I would be more conscious of how women are expected to speak.”
Many things hold a woman back in the Japanese corporate world, but linguistic customs may be the most insidious, she said.
Uchinaga, selected by Forbes Magazine in 2002 as one of the World’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, said it is helpful that she spends 40 percent to 60 percent of every week communicating in English.
“In English, there are fewer differences between the way women and men talk.” The differences that do exist, Uchinaga can ignore by pleading ignorance as a foreigner.
In Japanese, a woman who criticizes a subordinate using the same words as a man ends up sounding extremely harsh. This could hurt the subordinate’s performance as well as the woman’s reputation as a manager, she noted.
“There is no way I could have gotten to where I am today at a Japanese company,” remarked the sole female board member at IBM Japan, a wholly owned unit of the U.S. computer company.
Even at IBM Japan, when Uchinaga first joined it in the 1970s, she had to duck into the washroom at 8 p.m. and wait for her boss to go home to bypass a law that prohibited women from working more than two hours of overtime a day.
She scored her first major victory during a meeting at IBM’s Kingston laboratory in New York in 1974. The concept on the table seemed flat wrong, and she had to say something.
“Anou,” (‘um’ in Japanese), she would say, after tapping on the table to gain people’s attention. She made her arguments on paper, chalkboard, or at the home of her counterpart, until she was understood.
Uchinaga’s idea later became the basis for IBM’s best-selling 3270 computer terminal.
In the years that followed, Uchinaga studied the presentation techniques of her rivals whenever she lost a contract to ideas that seemed inferior to her own.
It didn’t take her long to realize that the Japanese were apologizing for their work and their ideas through their gestures and their long disclaimers.
“I wish I could say the best technology always wins. But in business, what counts is whether you can persuade top management your technology will sell and bring the most returns,” she said. “So you practice in front of the mirror, over and over and over again. Persuasion is a matter of will and passion.”
Yet demonstrating will and passion by pursuing a goal aggressively is still viewed as “unladylike” in Japan, she said.
Uchinaga suffers from bouts of coughing after speaking. Doctors say a possible cause could be that she lowers her voice below its natural range for long periods of time — a strategy she adopted to sound authoritative at meetings.
“The price women had to pay in the past to get ahead,” she said, pointing to her throat. “But it’s been worth it.”
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