Michiko Achilles says she and her husband have endured a difficult period of juggling work and raising their two daughters by handling it as if they were “playing games.”

The rule was simple. The one who finished their work early picked up their two daughters from day care. “Even if the time difference was only a few minutes, the one who finished first had to do it,” said Achilles, vice president of SAP Japan Co., with a chuckle. The same went for housework; whoever found a messy room first was the one to clean it up.

By sharing responsibilities with her husband, and with help from their neighbors and her mother when they both could not make it on time, Achilles continued to have challenging jobs, assuming leadership roles as a human resources development expert at global companies such as Citibank Japan Ltd. and Morgan Stanley Securities Co., and 3M. At Aozora Bank, she headed a group of all-male managers as a managing executive officer.

Looking back at those times when many companies did not have a system to support working parents like herself, Achilles said the environment has definitely improved. Most companies today have programs to support their employees in balancing work and child rearing, with some even offering in-house day care centers.

Despite such improvements, currently about half of Japanese women who give birth to their first child quit working, as they shoulder the majority of domestic duties, including child rearing. According to Cabinet Office data compiled in 2016, men in households with children who are 6 years old or younger spend 1 hour and 23 minutes a day, on average, on household duties, which is the lowest figure among developed countries. Women, on the other hand, spend 7 hours and 34 minutes a day.

One of the major reasons for this is entrenched social norms, Achilles said.

“When I married, looking after family was considered a priority for women. And many — both men and women — are still carrying that notion. I sense that when I talk to people,” said Achilles, who is also a member of the Women 20 Japan 2019 Steering Committee. “And that, I believe, would take quite a long time to change.”

To change such ingrained stereotypical gender roles, Achilles noted that parenting and education are two important factors.

“I believe it’s important for children to grow up in a family (where both their mother and father share the housework). Parents are the first and closest role models they encounter. So they learn by looking at the way their parents are,” Achilles said. “What they learn in school also plays a huge part. I know it has changed now, but for example, when I was a student, girls took home economics classes while boys had physical education.”

Having seen the career paths of many others as an expert in human resources and development, Achilles said women sometimes shy away from having more challenging jobs or being promoted to management positions. That is partly due to the influence of stereotypical gender roles or expectations from society, she explained. And that sometimes hinders women from elevating their careers, or taking on more challenging and responsible roles.

That is such a waste of talent, given that women often have the same or more potential than men to do an exceptional job, she said. “When I talk with people who work for human resources departments, I hear many saying women excel in performance. They said if they were to promote employees purely based on performance, many more women would be in senior positions,” Achilles said.

Although the number of women has increased at the entry or chief-level positions in Japan, when it comes to management levels, the ratio of women remains small. As for bringing up the numbers of women in senior-level positions in business, the important thing is to provide female employees support programs to develop their abilities and increase their confidence to take on more demanding roles, she said. For example, offering coaching to deal with different work and mentoring or sponsorship to help them overcome their hesitancy to climb the corporate ladder.

Such support catering to each employee’s needs is important for companies that strive to hire or promote women in the workforce to offset Japan’s rapidly graying and shrinking population, she pointed out.

Asked if she ever wanted to quit working, Achilles laughed and said, “A number of times.”

But her determination to do something to help people and the presence of her two daughters have kept Achilles going, pushing herself to new challenges.

“I’ve been pursuing a happy career and life that my daughters could be proud of. As I see them starting their own careers and working hard in recent years, I feel I should also keep trying my best,” she said. “That determination, and with my daughters looking at how I live my life, has been a huge part of my motivation.”

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