Looking back at her university years in the early 1980s when Japanese companies could openly discriminate against women in recruitment, Keiko Honda now feels gender equality in Japan has come a long way.

Back then, women were expected to assist the male workforce and quit once they married. These expectations encouraged girls to enroll in two-year junior colleges rather than attend four-year universities. As a university student, Honda was a minority.

“It was strategically a disadvantage for women to go to a university,” Honda, who is now executive vice president and CEO of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, an arm of the World Bank group, said during the 22nd International Conference for Women in Business held Sunday in Tokyo.

Times have changed, especially since the enactment in 1985 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, she said.

Today more women choose to attend universities, and a growing number continue to work after getting married. But Japan still lags far behind other developed nations when it comes to the gender gap in economic participation.

“Women haven’t been able to fully utilize the education they’ve received,” she said.

Honda’s view was echoed by other guest speakers at the annual conference to empower women, where many said Japan still stands midway in realizing a truly diverse working environment despite the government’s ongoing initiatives to empower more women to work to offset a shrinking population.

Close to 1,000 participants — from Japan and abroad — attended in the 10-hour event, sponsored in part by The Japan Times. According to organizer ewoman Inc., roughly 15 percent of the participants were men, which was the highest ratio since the event was launched in 1996.

Kaori Sasaki, founder and CEO of ewoman, said Japanese society has changed a lot since she started the gathering in Tokyo more than two decades ago.

“Twenty years ago, I could not imagine there would be a day where there would be a female Tokyo governor, like we see Yuriko Koike now,” she said. “But still, there is a long way to go.”

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Japan ranked 111th out of 144 countries, dropping 10 places from 101 the previous year. The drop was partly due to Japan slipping 12 places to 118th in its overall ranking for economic participation and opportunity.

Under efforts by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to promote women in the workplace, the government aims to have 30 percent of management positions in every sector occupied by women by 2020. But achieving that goal is looking increasingly unrealistic.

According to credit research agency Teikoku Databank, women accounted for only 6.6 percent of managers among 10,285 firms surveyed in July 2016.

Koike, who was one of the guest speakers at the event, said she plans to promote more women to management positions in the metro government as model of empowerment of women in the public sector.

After she became the capital’s first female leader about a year ago, the ratio of female lawmakers in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly increased to 28.3 percent from 19.7 percent. That’s mostly because Koike’s newly launched political group, Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) scored a landslide victory in the July 2 metro assembly election.

Currently in the metropolitan government, about 40 percent of officials are women and 20 percent hold managerial positions, Koike said. Identifying and developing talent of high-potential women will be crucial in tackling challenges Tokyo faces — such as a rapidly graying population. Koike has vowed to step up efforts to empower working women.

“I am the head (of the metro government) and I am determined to utilize women’s talent more,” she said. “I want to encourage skilled women to take management positions.”

Koike said Tokyo plans to increase capacity at day care centers for children and bolster support for female business leaders.

Akira Matsumoto, chairman and CEO of snack food maker Calbee Inc., said Japan needs more leaders like Koike, who has become the new face of the capital by challenging old-guard male politicians.

Speaking during a panel discussion on ways to change men’s mindset, Matsumoto said women should be more aggressive in upending “vested interests” rooted in power, money and status — traditionally the domain of men. Otherwise, it would be hard to change the long-standing corporate culture, he said.

“Men’s mindset won’t change. … If you wait to see change, it will probably take another 300 years,” Matsumoto said.

Calbee has carried out drastic reform of its corporate practices, including a reshuffle of its board of directors, to foster more diversity in the working environment. Matsumoto said the percentage of female managers is now around 24 percent, up from 5.9 percent in 2009, the year he became CEO.

“As a result, I’m hated in our company,” Matsumoto said. “But it’s part of a manager’s job to be hated while in office and to be liked once we quit,”

Other guest speakers included Intel K.K. President Makiko Eda, Goldman Sachs Japan Co. Vice Chair Kathy Matsui, The National Council for Women in Egypt President Maya Morsy and two-time Olympic marathon medalist Yuko Arimori.

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.