Women aged around 50 who started working soon after the equal employment opportunity law came into force in Japan in 1986 are now assuming executive positions in major companies.
But these women are just a small cadre of female professionals who have broken through the glass ceiling, with women accounting for only 9.2 percent of all managers in the private sector in 2014.
While the legislation has paved the way for Japanese women to be on a level playing field with men, hurdles still remain for many of them to keep working while juggling motherhood and a family.
“Do what you are supposed to do with sincerity every day. At the same time, let’s look to the future and take on challenges,” Chie Toriumi, president of Nomura Trust and Banking Co., wrote in an email to the bank’s 470 employees on the first working day of the year.
Toriumi, 50, is the first female head of a bank in postwar Japan. She says “talking to employees in my own words” has been her mantra since she assumed the post in April 2014.
After graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo, Toriumi entered Nomura Securities Co. in 1989 and pursued a mainstream career, getting experience in various posts, including as a stock trader, policy secretary for the company president and head of corporate planning.
Now that she is in the top position, “I am the one who needs to make the decision in the end,” she said.
“I did not feel there was a glass ceiling. But I cannot deny that I have survived by adjusting to a male-dominated society.”
Toriumi said that when she started her career, she did not want to be judged based on her gender and deliberately projected a tough image. But after some time, she was able to be herself at work.
“There were some moments when I could grasp the way the world works, as if I had crawled out from a ship’s bottom to the deck,” said Toriumi, adding that such moments enabled her to have a broader view and enjoy her work.
Toriumi, who is married but has no children, has always shared household chores with her husband.
Giving advice to young women who are pursuing a career, she said, “There is more than one role model. Don’t lose a sense of composure, so that you can go back to your usual self no matter what happens.”
Keiko Tashiro, 52, executive managing director of Daiwa Securities Group Inc., entered the firm in 1986. Now she is overseeing some 300 employees at a U.S. unit.
Tashiro said she chose to work for the company as she thought it offered a good environment for working women, but “I had never been able to imagine myself becoming what I am right now.”
She added that studying in the United States made her focus on how to move an organization or people to act, and that this affected her career path thereafter.
Keiko Kamimoto, the 48-year-old chief of Kirin Beer Marketing Co.’s Tochigi branch, said that 30 years ago “. . . (women were) under pressure to choose either work or family.”
Back then, the beer industry was dominated by men and the main customers were also men, prompting many female workers to quit after struggling to utilize their skills.
Kamimoto also thought about quitting, but she continued making efforts to utilize her perspective as a woman in her work.
Now that she has many junior staff members, Kamimoto is starting to “take new pride” in her work, she added.
Among those in “the first generation” of the equal employment opportunity law, many working women had to sacrifice their families due to flaws in the legislation.
But few of the women who have now become company executives seem to regret their career paths. Before the law took effect, it was impossible for women to feel the real joy of working, such as engaging in management and development of human resources, that they enjoy now.
Kimie Iwata, chairman of the Japan Institute for Women’s Empowerment and Diversity Management who helped develop the legislation at the labor ministry, said the law is “finally showing effects after 30 years.”