Hundreds of working women from Hokkaido to Okinawa gathered at the 18th International Conference for Women in Business in Tokyo’s Odaiba district to discuss ways to close Japan’s huge gender gap and help women play bigger roles in the workforce.

As the government plays up the need to employ more women to spark economic growth, female business executives and lawmakers spoke Sunday about the important roles women play in various fields and agreed they should not hesitate to take leading roles at work.

The conference, which is also supported by The Japan Times, kicked off with a speech by Kaori Sasaki, founder and CEO of the consultancy ewoman Inc., which organizes the annual event. Sasaki emphasized that society has finally begun motivating more women to join the business world.

“For the last few years, the government and the mass media are starting to get rolling with the catchphrase ‘women and the economy,’ ” she said. That is why the theme of the conference this year is “Be a Leader. Commit to Excellence,” and it has become more important for businesswomen to encourage themselves to take leading positions to contribute to diversity and thus healthier management, Sasaki said.

Kathy Matsui, managing director and chief Japan equity strategist for Goldman Sachs Japan Co., said in her speech that the country is required to support women’s participation in business, and that the data back this up.

“Japan’s female employment rate — 60 percent — still ranks as one of the lowest among developed nations, although it has risen in recent years,” she said, citing the International Labor Organization’s yearbook of labor statistics for 2009.

Matsui said Japanese women want to return to their jobs after bearing children like their counterparts in the United States and Germany, but in reality nearly half are unable to do so due in part to unfair working conditions, including unequal wages compared with men in the same types of jobs turning out similar work.

If Japan could close its gender gap, she said, its gross domestic product could jump by as much as 15 percent.

“Some may worry that . . . (giving women more chances to work) may not benefit men in the short term, but that assumption is based on the idea that Japan’s economic growth will remain flat. It will not be a problem if the pie gets bigger,” the well-known strategist said.

Matsui also said that there is a correlation between diversity and profitability, and that a higher female employment rate leads to a higher birthrate, contrary to popular belief.

Monika Queisser, head of the social policy division at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, also used statistics to illustrate the tough working environment women face.

Speaking in English, Queisser said Japan’s gender-based pay gaps are wider than the average in the OECD and grow with age. She said the nation needs to increase the number of women in decision-making positions, noting that fewer than 5 percent of all board members are women.

Queisser said workplace practices need to change for both men and women, and that Japanese men need to help their spouses more at home and take more leave. She also said the tax system needs to provide better incentives for women to return to work after childbirth.

“Gender equality in labor force participation is a key to sustaining economic growth,” she said.

In the following speech, Yuri Okina, research director and senior economist at Japan Research Institute Ltd., advised women to acquire expertise in certain business fields to help build confidence at work.

Okina, who took advantage of her financial expertise during her 2003-2007 stint at the Industrial Revitalization Corp. of Japan, the government-backed bailout agency, is now a member of the government’s Regulatory Reform Committee.

“Another good point for women is they don’t become workaholics, because they are required to spend more time with their family,” she said, pointing out that Japanese men tend to spend too much time working and get worn down by the corporate culture, which sometimes leads to collusive management misdeeds.

The importance of diversifying the workforce was further discussed by panelists who have succeeded in climbing the corporate ladder.

In a session titled “Diversity management. What kind of change do female board members bring?,” Akiko Ryu Innes-Taylor, senior operating officer at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., said women are a force: “Companies cannot ignore women’s opinions because 70 percent of consumer decisions are made by women.”

Ryu used to be the manager of Otsuka’s Pocari Sweat sports drink and five other brands. After leaving the drugmaker for personal reasons, she came back 13 years after being offered an executive post. Her ascent coincided with a major effort at the drugmaker to address consumer demands, Ryu said.

Seiichi Tominaga, director and chief operating officer at the Japan Corporate Governance Network, used data from Corporate Women Directors International in 2010 to show that the number of female executives in Japan remains a mere blip at 1.4 percent of the 40,000 directors at listed firms. He said Japanese companies need to train women to become board members and hire outside members who are women at the same time to accelerate diversity in management. At the moment, Japan is in 38th place out of the 42 countries surveyed, he said.

Fujiyo Ishiguro, president and CEO of IT service provider Netyear Group Corp., added that “diversity” is needed in the upper echelons for companies to innovate.

The session titled “Businesswomen will change Japan!” saw executives emphasize the importance of taking the initiative to lead big projects instead of hesitating.

Meanwhile, at a session on ways to pressure lawmakers into drafting legislation that promotes women’s goals, panelists confirmed that the voices of working women aren’t reaching lawmakers’ ears because they don’t have the time to attend their local meetings.

Taro Kono, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party in the Lower House, and Yoko Komiyama, a former politician with the Democratic Party of Japan, urged the audience to check the email addresses, telephone and fax numbers of lawmakers in their constituencies to convey their opinions.

Most people who attended the annual conference viewed it as encouraging.

“I’ve attended this event for several years,” Kyoko Anjitsu, a manager from Osaka, told The Japan Times.

“I’m usually terribly affected by men’s sense of value at my company. But by attending this conference, I can reset my mind and empower myself,” she said.

Mizuki Fushimi, a 35-year-old project coordinator at Juntendo University who is running a multisupport project for female athletes, attended to learn more about gender issues for her job.

“Many female athletes and coaches retire after they bear kids because they have to take care of them,” she said. “I’ve learned it is essential to change the mindset of not only women, but men as well.”

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