For Haruno Yoshida, co-chair of the Women 20 (W20) committee, a G20 engagement group, female empowerment is something like the construction behind Nara Prefecture’s famed ancient wooden Horyuji Temple.
Using a combination of naturally shaped, organic and nonuniform materials — some having become sun-warped and weathered over time — without changing their form, ancient carpenters designed and built the grand monument that dates back to 607 A.D., with the temple, the world’s oldest surviving wooden structure, and its compound now registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“I think a truly sustainable society with diversity is something similar to this ancient method of architecture,” Yoshida told The Japan Times in a recent interview ahead of the G20 Summit slated to begin Friday in Osaka. “In such a society, women should not be forced to change nor behave like men. Just like curved wood, a combination of different individuals, each with unique features, can make up a strong society that can continue for more than a 1,000 years.”
She said women, which account for 50 percent of Earth’s population, have been underutilized until now. “We should use our wisdom to do the best we can to build a stronger and sustainable society, and with this in mind, we held the W20 meeting,” said Yoshida, who along with Yoriko Meguro, professor emeritus of Sophia University, co-chaired the event in March in Tokyo that discussed ways to close the gender gap in society.
The March meeting was jointly held with the 5th World Assembly for Women (WAW!), which was hosted by the Japanese government. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet spoke at the opening session of the two-day conference.
Malala spoke of her hopes that girls’ education will be high on this year’s G20 agenda and urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as the chair of the G20 meeting, to prompt other leaders to commit to new funding to prepare girls for future careers. The G20 aims to reduce the labor force participation gap between men and women to 25 percent by 2025.
As the W20 represents roughly 2.3 billion women in G20 countries, Yoshida initially thought it would be impossible to come up with a common statement that properly addressed the diverse demands of women who come from so many different countries.
“Some places desperately require education. For some women, a job is needed to make ends meet. Other women need a driver’s licence. What happiness means is different everywhere,” the ex-CEO of BT Japan Corp. said.
But Yoshida felt there was a strong bond among the women who represent the 20 countries regardless of cultural and historical differences.
“What was in common among us was just one point, which is the fact that we are women,” said Yoshida. “But because the pain and challenges that we have faced in our lives due to that one point is so powerful, our bond has been made stronger.”
Eventually, the W20 came up with a common understanding that women’s social advancement means economic empowerment, which is also a basic idea of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, according to Yoshida.
“We came up with this vision: ‘Women’s empowerment for new prosperity,'” she said. “It can be the new engine for economic growth and no matter where you come from, nobody will disagree with this concept,” she added.
And when it comes to the economy, it’s the money that counts.
“Through W20 discussions, I felt strongly that money is like blood that circulates around the world,” said Yoshida, who now serves as a Keidanren adviser, which is the biggest business organization in Japan. She is a former vice chair of Keidanren’s Board of Councillors. “I believe that so many problems can be solved if money circulates into every corner of the world,” she said.
Using the example of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire earlier this year, which quickly saw the raising of ¥100 billion in donations in just a few days to pay for repairs to the famed church, Yoshida said that the money is obviously there, but only by calling it to the public’s attention can it be distributed properly to the people in need.
Yoshida also praised Malala, who has raised a lot of money from companies and individuals for the world’s poor.
“Malala is such a powerful girl. She is from a poor family in a poor town in Pakistan. … But now she generates huge amounts of money in every country she visits, and the money she raised will go to education for poor children in Afghanistan and other areas,” she said.
“What is amazing is that she’s got a to-do list in her mind and decides where the funds should be spent next. This money should be spent for this project, and the next one is this. … So, she is like a dam for new cash flow,” said Yoshida, adding that women should learn from the Notre Dame example and Malala.
Yoshida argues that in the long history of humankind, people have not thoroughly thought about the value of women’s role in society and why investments should be made in women. In order to get the message out, it is necessary to show the actual figures of women’s contributions to society.
In the case of Japan, thanks to Abenomics, nearly 2.5 million women have entered the nation’s workforce between 2012 and 2017, contributing to a 3 percent increase in the GDP, according to a report by Boston Consulting Group’s think tank BCG Henderson Institute.
Yoshida pointed out the fact that women are the main driving force behind consumer spending, which usually accounts for 60 to 70 percent of GDP.
“I was talking to an auto executive, and he said men do not even have a say in deciding the color of a new car when buying an automobile. If he doesn’t consult his wife, the wife will complain till the car is retired,” she said. “At a supermarket, everything from snacks to toothpaste, it’s the women who decide what to buy.”
Yoshida added, “If these decision-makers get the money to spend, they will create a new market. … If they started to spend money for dinner, fashion and travel, it’s a market women create. That is estimated to be worth ¥100 trillion a year in the U.S.”
She said that Americans started to recognize that women 25 years and older were the driving force behind these new markets.
When Yoshida traveled to India on a trip with other Japanese businesspeople, she met a female corporate executive. The executive told her that working women are quickly creating new markets in India. When Indian women work for a global company, they will wear a business suit, instead of the traditional sari, and this has created a new clothing market worth tens of trillions of yen in the past five years.
“This kind of story would not even be on the table for discussion if there were only men in the room,” Yoshida said. “If companies want to capture even a fraction of these newly emerging markets, they will want to have someone who understands what women spend their money on. It’s as simple as that,” she said.
Moreover, Yoshida thinks the act of purchasing products means helping others, particularly those who make the products.
“Consumption means helping producers with money,” Yoshida said. “Spending money will eventually help improve the lives of people in the area where the products are made, the businesses and the country itself.”
She said the most influential investor that corporate CEOs are afraid of is the consumer. If consumers stop buying their products, they are in trouble. Also, a scary reality in this digital age is that negative rumors can spread quickly around the world.
“I think buying a product is like having the right to vote,” Yoshida said. “By purchasing a particular product, you are expressing your support for the product, the way it’s made or traded. This is especially true for ‘ethical’ or ‘fair-trade’ products.”
She said women themselves should recognize how valuable they are, as their contribution to society and the markets is enormous.
So, instead of merely making demands of the government, Yoshida said women should think about how to communicate better and let people know how valuable it is to have women in higher positions in companies.
And in order to get this issue placed higher on the G20 agenda, Yoshida said that G20 leaders who gather in Osaka should take the initiative to narrow the gender gap.
“We will push ourselves. But just as important for the effort to achieve that end to be successful, (G20) leaders must act. So I want everyone to think about the issue of gender. It should not be a problem of just women nor Japan, but should be the issue that everyone should be on board to tackle,” she said.