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Female leaders encourage women to be confident and believe in themselves at Tokyo conference

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

With “womenomics” often touted as a key policy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the government has been working to increase women’s participation in the workforce, politics and other areas in recent years.

However, change has been slow in Japan, which ranked 114th in last year’s Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum.

Despite the odds in this male-dominated society, what can be done to empower women in Japan?

Over 800 people gathered in Tokyo’s Odaiba district on Sunday to discuss the issue and share their personal struggles and triumphs at the 23rd International Conference for Women in Business.

Hosted by consultancy ewoman, Inc., this year’s conference featured panel and roundtable discussions on topics ranging from health and new working styles to multinational management and workforce diversity.

Speakers at the conference, sponsored in part by The Japan Times, discussed how they need to ‘live strong’ — which was this year’s theme — and drew on their own experiences to drive home how important it is for women to be confident and believe in themselves.

“What does it mean to ‘live strong’? I think it’s all about believing yourself,” said internal affairs minister Seiko Noda, the minister in charge of women’s empowerment.

“Sometimes we have to give in to stronger forces. But if there is something that you know you have worked harder for than anyone else . . . then it is important to believe in yourself, through and through,” she said.

Indeed, lack of confidence has often been cited as one reason why women around the world have struggled to achieve the same kind of success as men.

A Cornell University study by Joyce Ehrlinger and David Dunning in 2003 had students take a scientific reasoning test and rate their own performance on it without knowing how they actually did. The results showed that women rated themselves significantly more negatively than men, even though their actual scores were about the same.

Women were also more likely than men to decline invitations to a science competition after the test. The study found that their refusal rate was linked to how well they thought they performed, rather than how well they actually did.

In a separate study on women’s leadership conducted by auditor KPMG in 2015, a survey of over 3,000 women in the United States found that 92 percent were not confident about “asking for sponsors,” and that 73 percent lacked confidence about “pursuing a job opportunity beyond their experience.”

McDonald’s Japan CEO Sarah Casanova also felt confidence issues might be preventing women from reaching their potential.

“We did an internal survey and asked women, ‘What holds you back from wanting to be promoted?’ Sixty percent of our female employees said, ‘the lack of confidence,’ ” she said in her speech at the conference.

Casanova herself has had moments of doubt, especially when she was asked by a senior employee at McDonald’s to leave her native Canada to join the marketing department of the McDonald’s franchise in Russia.

“I’m picturing Russia as cold and dark and scary, and nobody speaks English and I’m like ‘I can’t do that.’ But somehow I mustered up the confidence to go for it,” she recalled.

“We think we need to be perfect, we need to check all the boxes before we move forward, with confidence. Look at it this way — when someone opens a door for you they think you have what it takes, and you should, too,” she said.

Marin Minamiya, a 21-year-old university student who climbed Mount Everest at the age of 19 and went on to become the youngest person ever to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam — the Seven Summits plus the North and South Poles — echoed how important confidence was in achieving her goal.

Minamiya spoke of how her father refused to provide any financial support for the Everest attempt, meaning she had to ask countless companies to sponsor her undertaking.

She was also discouraged by a Japanese alpinist who had already reached the top and dismissed her for even thinking about it.

“He said: ‘There’s no way a little girl like you can climb Mount Everest. The very fact that you’re thinking about doing it is an insult to me,’ ” Minamiya recalled.

To make things worse, Minamiya took a 250-meter fall during a preparatory climb in Nagano Prefecture. But she survived.

Calling the incidents ‘invisible mountains’ she had to scale to attain her goal, she said: “If I had given up at any point when facing these three mountains, I wouldn’t be here.

“In the end it’s all about believing yourself. That’s what is most important. Can you be your own best supporter? How many ‘invisible mountains’ can you scale? This is the key to living strongly,” she said.

But it can be hard to get the motivation to persevere and build confidence alone.

The KPMG report noted that some 67 percent of the respondents in its survey claimed they needed more support to feel confident enough to become a leader.

“Governments can certainly help by setting the agenda, but they can’t do it alone. Companies can’t do it by themselves either. The key catalyst is the attitude of women,” Casanova said in her speech.

“And if women are unwilling to step up to lead because they lack confidence, we need to give them the encouragement and support that they need. We need to work together to live strong,” she added.

“The bottom line is this — as women, we have to support one another. When you find yourself in a position of influence, no matter what level . . . bring other women along. It’s not us against the men, it’s us together, both men and women, working together,” said Zambian Ambassador to Japan Ndiyoi Muliwana Mutiti.

In a panel discussion, Mutiti had explained how she had to learn how to say ‘I am the ambassador’ in Japanese when she came to Japan because she would often be referred to as the ambassador’s wife.

“When a woman does well, give her the accolade she deserves. And when you are doing well, bring other women along,” she said.