National / Social Issues

'Don't be scared of diversity': At G(irls)20 summit, advocates push Japan on gender equality

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Born to a Nigerian father and a Japanese mother, Irene Evbade-dan recalls valuable lessons from her parents on the importance of treating people with respect, regardless of their age, gender or background.

She took those lessons to heart. Knowing firsthand the challenges children with different ethnic backgrounds face in Japan, Evbade-dan, 23, has been dedicated to supporting young people in Japan with African backgrounds overcome cultural differences and maintain their heritage.

Now, she is pushing her beliefs as Japan’s representative to the G(irls)20 summit, an annual forum aimed at advocating gender equality to Group of 20 leaders in the hopes that Japan and the world will better embrace diversity and narrow gender gaps.

For Evbade-dan, the message to the G20 summit leaders, including those in Japan, is simple: “Don’t be scared of diversity. Don’t be scared of differences.”

Irene Evbade-dan, Japan's representative to the summit, speaks during an interview on May 26 in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. | MAGDALENA OSUMI
Irene Evbade-dan, Japan’s representative to the summit, speaks during an interview on May 26 in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. | MAGDALENA OSUMI

On Friday, Evbade-dan and 23 other women aged between 18 and 23 submitted a set of proposals aimed at addressing global social issues to Japan’s delegation to the G20 summit slated for later this month in Osaka.

The communique echoed ideas Evbade-dan and the 23 other young women from around the world discussed at the G(irls)20 summit held from May 24 to May 31, ranging from ways to ensure gender equality at workplaces, equal access to education and universal health care. They also expressed the need for female entrepreneurship models.

They called on G20 leaders to ensure that educational curricula and materials are revised to be gender-balanced to eliminate sociocultural barriers that discourage girls’ early interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. They also urged G20 leaders to ensure that women are recruited based on their ability rather than factors such as age, appearance, family background or relationship status.

Evbade-dan is no stranger to gender stereotyped remarks in Japan.

Chen Pinxin, the delegate from China, listens to a panel discussion on Wednesday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Chen Pinxin, the delegate from China, listens to a panel discussion on Wednesday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

“We’ve been told that we have to smile, we have to act in a certain way. … And I’ve always been taught that I’m not qualified or I’m not good enough or I’m not worth being here,” she recalled in an interview in Tokyo late last month.

Evbade-dan, a graduate of Tokyo’s Sophia University who currently studies at the University of Freiburg in Germany, believes that Japan already has well-established policies to support women. She now wants to engage society and the nation’s leaders in a dialogue to seek concrete solutions for issues that prevent young women from advancing in their careers.

“We now have a (quite) good system in Japan to support women” like mandatory maternity leave, she said. “But the next step would be to make women to use it; make women comfortable to use this system. There are so many good NGO initiatives. If we can support their activities, we can make them more visible through policies. We can have both the top-down and bottom-up approach.”

During the G(irls)20 summit, Farah Mohamed, founder of G(irls)20, said she launched the platform out of frustration that women had long been excluded from various decision-making processes.

W20 co-chair Haruno Yoshida (left) speaks during a panel discussion on Wednesday as Nadia Theodore, Consul General at the Canadian Embassy in Japan, looks on. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
W20 co-chair Haruno Yoshida (left) speaks during a panel discussion on Wednesday as Nadia Theodore, Consul General at the Canadian Embassy in Japan, looks on. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

She praised Japan for realizing that to reinvigorate the nation, it needs to start making use of one of its most underutilized resources: women. “(But) I think Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe would appreciate me saying more needs to be done — here in Japan and around the world,” Mohamed, who until recently was the CEO of the Malala Fund, said at the forum.

Jackie Steele, a Canadian political scientist and designated associate professor at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Law, who was among the panelists, said Japanese laws lack sufficient sanctions for discrimination against women.

If compliance is voluntary, she said, “then you’re basically letting self-interested actors in society decide whether to comply or not.”

Steele, a longtime Japan resident and an expert in women’s leadership, proposed that fathers be obliged to take a six-month paid paternity leave as an investment in “gender-equal responsibility for caregiving each baby born.”

“We need to support men (and women) to be involved in caregiving without being punished in the workplace, so let’s give them that clear encouragement and duty,” she said.

She said such a solution would help change social norms, which position only women as “the default CEO at home” and thus allow fathers to opt out of active parenting duties.

Mariko Saito, a gender equality expert and consultant for the United Nations development program, said attitudes and mindsets in society need to change for more women to be involved in leadership.

“We’re all sort of embedded with gender bias,” said Saito, adding that such bias harms women in rural areas by depriving them of access to career opportunities.

Heather Barnabe | MAGDALENA OSUMI
Heather Barnabe | MAGDALENA OSUMI

In a recent interview, Heather Barnabe, the current CEO of G(irls)20 and an advocate for women’s and girls’ rights, agreed, saying that a lack of mentorship opportunities may be affecting young women’s career choices, especially when it comes to leadership roles.

The gender inequality that persists in leadership positions is reflected in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index for 2018, in which Japan ranked 110th out of 149, she said.

“For a country as advanced as it is, that is a bit small,” Barnabe said.

“There’s not a lot of young women encouraged to be included in the labor fields of high levels or politics, civil society, the private sector — there’s just not a lot of women in leadership positions,” she said. “And you can’t be what you can’t see,” especially in Japan.

But she believes Evbade-dan can be a change-maker for women in Japan.

For Evbade-dan, the answer to female empowerment and other social issues in Japan is inclusiveness and diversity.

“We have to realize that it is actually benefiting us as a society,” she said. “Diversity means diverse knowledge. Diversity means that when you are tackling a problem, diverse people can offer diverse solutions.”