Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Director Deborah Dunsire, the only female on a board of one of Japan’s 10 largest public companies, says the drugmaker is just getting started in promoting more women to senior levels.

Dunsire, 50, isn’t satisfied women make up only 2 percent of management at the Osaka-based company’s business in Japan, she said in an interview in Tokyo. She’s presenting herself as a role model for the 230-year-old firm’s female workers, who comprise about 27 percent of local staff.

“A lot of them are struggling to find their way because they want to contribute to the company but also have a family life,” said Dunsire, who is also chief executive officer of Takeda’s Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. unit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “They want to understand that it can be done. Even though I live in a different society that is much more supportive, they can see that there’s a possibility for that here in Japan.”

Takeda wants to more than double the ratio of female managers to 5 percent, still less than half the 2009 national average, by March 2016. Since arriving at Takeda through its 2008 acquisition of Millennium, Dunsire has helped create a child-care center at the company’s laboratory in a Tokyo suburb and has hosted meetings as often as twice a year with women identified for their potential to advance.

Male preference in hiring and promotion and a lack of support for working mothers has left Japan with the lowest rate of female managers among developed nations — 9 percent as of 2009, compared with 43 percent in the United States, the International Monetary Fund said in an October report.

Raising Japan’s female employment rate to 80 percent, the rate for males, from the current 60 percent would boost Japan’s gross domestic product by as much as 15 percent by expanding consumption and increasing the size of the workforce, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. estimates.

While Takeda has no Japanese women in senior executive positions, Dunsire is among three females in leadership roles at the drugmaker. Anna Protopapas heads business development, while Nancy Joseph-Ridge oversees drug development for the company. Protopapas and Joseph-Ridge are based in Takeda’s U.S. unit.

Takeda Chief Executive Officer Yasuchika Hasegawa, 66, has a vision to increase the number of Japanese female managers, though the pace of change isn’t uniform across the company, Dunsire said. Takeda, which traces its origins to a medicine wholesale business opened in 1781, only had Japanese board members until 2009.

Dunsire, named Woman of the Year by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in 2009, began her career as a physician in South Africa, then took a research job at Sandoz. After the company merged with Ciba-Geigy to create Novartis AG in 1996, she helped persuade top executives to invest in cancer drugs. She left for Millennium in 2005 after serving as the head of Novartis North American oncology business for five years.

At Takeda, sales is one key to Japanese women’s advancement, she says. The drugmaker’s Japanese sales unit now has a few female area managers and the goal is to help them get promoted to regional leadership ranks, Dunsire says.

“Takeda has traditionally drawn a lot of its management talent from the sales force,” Dunsire said. “I see these women coming out of sales and going to different functions or for sales leadership. It’s critically important that we advance women through that, as the traditional path within Takeda.”

With a below-replacement birthrate, Japan’s working population is expected to fall to 55 million by 2050, 37 percent less than in 1995, according to an IMF report.

The decline, along with the aging society, leaves Japan’s economy in danger of being overtaken by that of faster-growing countries, including India and Indonesia, the IMF said.

Dunsire is one of the three internal board members hired by Takeda from outside in the past five years. Others are Frank Morich, who led Bayer AG’s health care unit, and Tadataka Yamada, who oversaw GlaxoSmithKline PLC’s research and development and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations’ health programs.

While Takeda is globalizing, “it’s a whole other step for the very traditional company to accept Japanese women leaders,” Dunsire said. “We still have some growing to do.”

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