Gender equality in the workforce is not a simple thing to achieve.

Japan’s 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Act requires employers to ensure equal treatment of men and women.

However, working women in Japan have faced various obstacles that have limited their potential ability. That has driven Kaori Sasaki to continue her endeavors to move society forward since she launched the International Conference for Women in Business (ICWB) in 1996.

More than 20,000 participants have attended the conference over the past two decades.

Prior to the 20th conference to be held on July 26, Sasaki, president of ewoman, Inc., and Sayuri Daimon, executive operating officer and managing editor of The Japan Times, one of the sponsors of the conference, reviewed the conference while reflecting on the social changes.

Daimon: What are your feelings heading into the 20th edition of the ICWB?

Sasaki: I feel the situation is slowly changing for the better. When I started gatherings of working women in 1989 prior to the ICWB, Japanese society had just begun to “allow women to work like men.” Today, female managers are not so uncommon any more and more women are taking leadership roles in higher positions including as board members.

Daimon: What was the most challenging issue during that time?

Sasaki: When I launched the ICWB in 1996, I approached a Japanese business lobby for sponsorship. After listening to me, they simply said: “Women’s gathering? You’re only likely to bring together entrepreneurs or workers of foreign corporations and smaller enterprises, who don’t represent mainstream Japanese business. We’ll never be interested in such a conference and would never sponsor it.” These words discouraging me from launching such a conference pushed me harder to make the first conference successful, where half the participants turned out to be women struggling in “mainstream” Japanese companies.

Daimon: And this year, you’ve invited President and Representative Director of British Telecom Japan Corp. Haruno Yoshida, who has been appointed as the first female executive of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation).

Sasaki: It’s symbolic. Sometimes, I felt discouraged and wondered whether I should continue with the conference. But when the Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009, the ministers were so active in promoting women’s empowerment, and since the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in 2012, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has encouraged women’s participation in the workforce as one of its key strategies to revitalize the Japanese economy.

Daimon: Indeed, it’s the first time a prime minister has stated such a goal.

Sasaki: I think Prime Minister Abe’s commitment was a key to move the Japanese business community.

Daimon: I was surprized that he participated in the ICWB last year. Do you think that there have been changes on the men’s side, too?

Sasaki: Well, I think the younger generation of those under 50 have been changing their ways of working and sense of value. Today, it’s normal to see men shopping at supermarkets and carrying a baby in a sling. Of course, they haven’t completely changed, but at least they are clearly showing their commitment to domestic affairs.

Daimon: The House of Representatives passed a female empowerment bill last month. What kind of measures do you think are needed moving forward?

Sasaki: Until now, the working model was a culture of long hours and lifetime employment for men. Some measures such as parental leave and reduction in working hours, were designed for women to be on the “sidewalk,” as they cannot work the same “main street” as men. The reason men are reluctant to take advantage of these measures is that they don’t want to end up on the sidewalk. Rather than continuing to improve the sidewalk, I think it’s time to create a single broad street for both men and women.

Daimon: Actually, the theme of the ICWB last year was “Game changer.”

Sasaki: As I said, men have established today’s “rules of the game” in Japanese business. Rather than just working hard under the existing rules or complaining about the disadvantages of women, why don’t we contribute to changing the game ourselves? That was my idea.

Daimon: The annual ICWB conference has brought together prominent international speakers from business, politics, sports, academia and other fields every year. I was very inspired and encouraged when I attended some sessions at previous conferences. What kind of feedback have you received from the participants?

Sasaki: We have received many letters of gratitude, which I find amazing for a business conference. The ICWB is more than listening to lectures by prominent figures and having some nice meals at a hotel. It’s an opportunity to participate in animated discussions with your mentors and to encounter your peers, which may create “chemical reactions” and motivate you to take new actions.

Daimon: What makes the conference so different from similar events?

Sasaki: I’ve always planned with passion (laugh) lining up speakers from diverse backgrounds. Also, we never “mobilize” participation. Everyone comes by their own will. I was surprised to see an individual application from a male CEO of a listed company. About 60 percent of the participants come alone and are first timers. Another feature is our sponsorship program that was inaugurated after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Individual or corporate sponsors can contribute to invite people from disaster-hit areas and students to the conference. Some of the recipients of this program were so grateful and motivated that they have become sponsors.

Daimon: I understand this year’s theme is “Make History.” What do you mean by this?

Sasaki: Marking the milestone of the 20th year, I want to call for solidarity anew to move our history forward from today.

Daimon: Can you introduce some of the highlights of the upcoming conference?

Sasaki: Well, the discussion at the session “Regulatory reform for work diversity” will be reflected at the government’s WAW! Conference, and we will announce a common report by the end of the year. Also, there will be a session on LGBT for the first time in eight years, a session by women on boards of directors and many more. So far, the number of applicants is over 1,000, including those from 30 embassies. Sunday’s participants will go back to work across Japan on Monday, and share their experience with their colleagues. This can change the society, I believe.

Past themes and 2015 overview

The following are the themes discussed in past years:

  • 1996 Women in Leadership
  • 1997 Business and Relaxation
  • 1998 Being Independent
  • 1999 Achieving Personal Excellence
  • 2000 Women and the Internet
  • 2001 Women and Money
  • 2002 Accepting the Challenge to Change
  • 2003 Global Literacy: Expanding Your Worldview
  • 2004 Self Motivation: Turning Passion into Action
  • 2005 The Next Stage for Women
  • 2006 Careers and Class: For a More Powerful You
  • 2007 What We Need To Do Today To Build Our Tomorrow
  • 2008 Diversity and Inclusion
  • 2009 Act outside the Box
  • 2010 Making a Difference
  • 2011 Acting and Connecting Beyond Borders
  • 2012 We Move the World Forward
  • 2013 Be a Leader. Commit to Excellence.
  • 2014 Game Changer

The 20th conference will be held on July 26 in Tokyo. The theme is “Make History.”

Invited speakers include Haruno Yoshida, president and representative director of BT Japan Corp.; Seiko Noda, member of the House of Representatives; Mohau Pheko, ambassador of South Africa to Japan; Rosemary McCarney, president and CEO of Plan Canada; Hiroshi Ishii, associate director and Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT Media Lab; Atsuko Muraki, vice minister of Health, Labour and Welfare; and race car driver Keiko Ihara.

Topics of interactive discussions in the afternoon include “Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn’t, and Why?” “Careers and women’s reproductive life cycles” and “New ideas that will make the next decade.”

There will be simultaneous interpretation for many of the discussions, some of which are conducted in English.

Download the PDF of this International Conference for Women in Business

For more information, visit www.women.co.jp/conf.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.