Changing the cultural mindset entrenched in Japanese society that underestimates and undervalues women’s abilities is not only key to promoting them to leadership positions, it will also lead to wider social and financial gains for all.
That is what Irene Natividad, president of the Global Summit of Women, said in a recent interview when she was in Tokyo for the group’s annual summit, which drew more than 1,300 business and political leaders from over 60 countries.
When asked about Japan’s slow progress in bridging the gender gap, she talked about how culture often stands in the way.
“It is a function of culture, which is probably the biggest barrier to most women everywhere,” said Natividad, adding that stereotypes can be shattered by continuing to show through last week’s forum what female leaders have achieved.
“What I do is showcasing what is possible for the women themselves,” so participants can replicate that success in their respective organizations, she said.
The conference — sometimes referred to as “the Davos for women,” a reference to the annual World Economic Forum hosted in Switzerland — also invites young students “so they can see where they can go, the possibilities for a career that they may have not thought about,” she said.
Despite being the world’s third-largest economy, Japan has a strikingly poor record on women’s social advancement and lags behind many industrialized countries.
It ranked 111th out of 114 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 global gender gap ranking and sees only 6.9 percent of board seats held by women, one of the worst in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a 2017 report by the Corporate Women Directors International, which is chaired by Natividad.
Many Japanese women still give up their career after having children due to a lack of child care services and difficulty in juggling family duties and work.
But these problems are not unique to Japan, she said.
“The bias is there whether here in Japan or in the United States. It’s just a question of degree and how it manifests itself.”
Natividad said that in general there are discouraging cultural mindsets forcing women to choose between work and children as well as work environments that measure performance based on the number of hours spent on the job, instead of results achieved.
“Many still do not understand advancing women is closely tied to a better financial performance for a company,” Natividad said. “So we have to repeat over and over that you hire women in order to make more money.
“The best companies with best diversities and inclusive strategies do not necessarily break the glass ceiling,” unless the culture itself is changed, she said.
As it takes centuries for equality to evolve naturally, she said that sometimes government-driven “cultural engineering” is necessary to force change, referring to how the Swedish government provided tax incentives for those taking paternity leave.
For such a shift to occur, she believes that engaging both male and female government and business leaders is crucial, so she welcomes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “womenomics,” which seeks economic growth by promoting women’s social advancement.
The Abe administration has set a goal of raising the number of women in leadership positions within Japan to 30 percent by 2020 and has pledged to provide more child care services while reforming work practices.
The Global Summit of Women came to Japan for the first time this year to inspire people to hold the country’s leaders to their pledge of encouraging women’s rise into the country’s upper echelons, Natividad said.
At the same time, she said women should take the initiative. “Japanese women have to be more active in creating the change, not just depending on leaders to do it for them.”
Natividad, who has been organizing the conference since 1990, is also recognized as an advocate for women in the United States.
The 68-year-old native of the Philippines has held a number of important positions in U.S. political organizations, including at the National Women’s Political Caucus, a bipartisan organization she headed as the first Asian-American president in the late 1980s.
Among many other posts, she has served on the boards of directors and advisory boards of nonprofit organizations, such as the National Association of Corporate Directors.
She attributes her own achievements to the help she received from her Italian husband in raising their son. So finding the right partner can be a key to a woman’s success, she said. “You have to find someone who will share family responsibilities.”
Despite her own achievements, Natividad still feels that sexism is pervasive. Women’s qualifications are not adequately appreciated, even in the United States, a lesson she learned through devoting herself to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“Glass ceilings are very much there, but we don’t give up,” she said, meaning that until there is transformational progress, Natividad will continue to convene the global forum.
“Why would I do this crazy thing trying to bring a summit to a different country each year where I know nobody? It’s not easy to do this,” she said.
“But you keep trying different things. I do research, I convene the women, I talk to the women and I talk to the young people. You just have to do what you have to do, you push politicians. It’s my life.”