An annual gathering of Kansai’s corporate leaders closed Friday with calls to strengthen the role of women in society.

The Kansai Economic Seminar, which started Thursday, drew about 550 corporate leaders from the region, virtually all of whom are male. Nationwide, only about 11 percent of managerial positions at major corporations are held by women, as opposed to about 30 to 40 percent in the West.

With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promising to make the role of women in society stronger following months of international comments ranging from the International Monetary Fund to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi about Japan’s need to empower women, Kansai’s corporate leaders decided to include a session at this year’s seminar on the challenges faced by female executives at not only large firms but also small and medium-size enterprises.

Addressing the group’s opening session Thursday, Patrick Linehan, U.S. consul general in Osaka and Kobe, read out a letter from Ambassador Caroline Kennedy noting that the Abe administration’s policy of fully utilizing the power of Japan’s women is a critical issue.

He then added his own views.

“The number of women in managerial positions is even lower in Kansai than in other parts of Japan,” Linehan said. “If you want to realize new economic growth, I suggest you start by looking at the women of Japan.”

Changing corporate strategies crafted by male managers and creating workplaces that allow women to both manage their careers and families formed much of the discussion.

“The biggest problem is changing the attitude of the men. Being good to women with families creates opportunities for their growth,” said Kazuko Takamatsu, head of a foundation that assists working women, especially those with families.

Some discussion centered on whether it is necessary for firms to set numerical targets for the number of women in management positions. While several participants said their firms have such goals in place, others said it is more important to judge individual talent and promote accordingly.

The session ended with calls to Kansai firms to make more efforts to include women by not only hiring more, but also ensuring talented women working part time are given full-time positions.

More flexible hours for working mothers was encouraged, as was the introduction of various mentoring systems to ensure that firms’ younger female talent have older female mentors in management positions they can turn to for advice.

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